Kage Baker loved shrimp. She was a little cautious about what she called naked shrimp – any shrimp not breaded or covered in an interesting sauce – but if they were very fresh and a decent size, her suspicions were allayed. Small ones, she said, always made her worried that they’d been raised in someone’s table-top aquarium.
What she liked most were big, golden, battered, fried prawns. Preferably eaten out of a twist of paper, while sheltering from the rain in a doorway or under a bridge, in sight of the sea on a grey winter evening … and while that sounds impossibly specific, like a geas from a faerie tale, it was something she accomplished fairly frequently in Pismo Beach.
The best ones were from the Golden Lantern, which was the only Chinese restaurant within walking distance for most of our lives. Luckily, it made stellar food – egg fu yung as thick as paperbacks and tender as a rose petal, lemon chicken in a sauce like yellow neon light, and those prawns … which could be dumped from the white cardboard carton into brown paper bags and thence carried off in triumph to the seaside. We’d shelter under the eucalyptus trees or the Pier (if the tide was low enough) and eat hot oily prawns with our fingers and practice speaking in English accents …
That was in our teens. By adulthood, the conversation had evolved into Kage’s own stories. Fried prawns were a staple in the coastal cities of the Children of the Sun. Kage would lovingly describe the brightly lit ocean-front promenades, or the wet stone quays between fishing boats with painted sails; and among them, the two-wheeled carts venting steam like small dragons, selling hot prawns and noodles and kebobs you could dip in lemon lamp oil …
Kage always longed to be able to drink scented lamp oil.
Quite late in life, I finally persuaded her to try lobster as well. That was a revelation to her, but nothing like shrimp. She loved it, but it never could replace the shining golden ring of a perfectly fried prawn.
Kimberly has just introduced me to something I never, ever thought of as a shrimp snack. She appeared at my elbow here with a plate full of fresh little cocktail shrimp and a bowl of seafood sauce – pulled out one of the handy breadboards in my desk and told me, “Eat this.” Instant, easy shrimp cocktail! Amazing! How is it I reached 58 years old and never thought of this?
And since I have no qualms myself about naked crustaceans, I’ve been alternating typing with fingerfuls of luscious cold shrimp. It does mean the little black cat is licking the keys on my keyboard, but that’s actually an improvement over walking on them and producing gibberish on my monitor. The shrimp are safe – she lives on essences, perfumes and dew drops – it’s the memory of shrimp that she wants and is licking off the keys …
I just started this entry to reminisce about meals and excursions with Kage, and how those long walks by the sea with bags of prawns in our pockets got worked into her stories. She always liked to confer immortality on what she loved. And then present reality showed up in the person of a plate of cocktail shrimp, and suddenly everything dovetails neatly into itself. The narratives seam themselves together into one gleaming circle.
Shrimp Ouroborous. Neat.