Tradition has been defined as "how it was done when you were a child." Whether that's a general truth or just a jaded observation of how lifelong behavior patterns form at a very early age, we do tend to hold onto things, both good and bad, from our childhoods.
Regardless of when and how they begin, as so many personal and family traditions have been laid waste in this time of pandemic isolation, never have the ones that we can still keep seemed more important.
One of mine, which began when I was about ten, is making shrimp creole every summer. Even at that age, cooking and cookbooks were already a source of endless fascination. And while vacationing on the Isle of Palms, a barrier island just north of Charleston, South Carolina, my mother bought a copy of Charleston Receipts. First published by the Junior League in 1950, it had by the 60's become a timeless classic.
Anyway, it was years before Mama got to even look at it. I carried it off and got lost in its pages, which were a veritable treasure-trove of exotica for my young imagination. Of them all, it was the top of page 68 that stood out: Brewton Inn Creole Shrimp, a simple concoction of canned tomatoes and boiled shrimp which was Creole in name only. But back then I'd never heard of Creole anything and the exotic ring of the word, whispering of the steamy, haunted streets of New Orleans' old French Quarter, was bewitching.
I knew that as soon as Mama left me alone in the kitchen, it would be among the first things I'd make. That blessed day was a couple of years coming, so by the time it arrived I'd had just enough cooking experience to be dangerous, and my imagination had gone way past page 68. It served as little more than a basic guide to the flavors that had been simmering on my palate.
First of all, even at that tender age, my mother had taught me that the key to success with any dish, but especially a simple one, lay in the quality of the ingredients. In the case of shrimp creole, that meant the shrimp and tomatoes had to be first rate.
The shrimp were freshly-caught brown creek shrimp from the Lowcountry, bought from the back of a shrimper's truck parked by the side of the road. We either had a kitchen or camp stove where we were staying, so they were usually cooked within an hour or two. Then, on our way home, we'd stop and buy twenty pounds or so and pack them into a big cooler filled with crushed ice.
As soon as we got home, we'd cook a batch, a sort of last hurrah of our vacation. The rest were packed, still in their shells, in water to cover and frozen so we could have a little taste of summer all winter long.
As for the tomatoes, canned ones were just not going to do. To begin with, we didn't even have them in the house. Mama grew several kinds in her garden, so we had fresh tomatoes all summer, and off season, because she'd spent the dog days of summer blanching, peeling, chopping, and freezing them, we had frozen ones, which, while they lose some of their texture in the process, hold onto nearly all their fresh flavor.
The seasonings outlined in that recipe were spare: The Creole Holy Trinity (celery, onion, and peppers) was there, but the only other seasonings were salt, pepper, and a teaspoon of sugar to counter the citric acid in canned tomatoes. No garlic, herbs, or cayenne pepper. Somehow, I'd learned that thyme was supposedly to Creole cooks what oregano was to Italians, and Worcestershire sauce was so taken for granted in our kitchen that the bottle we kept on hand was enormous. In went thyme, a bay leaf, a healthy dose of chopped garlic, cayenne pepper, and a generous dash or so of Worcestershire. As for the sugar, Mama's tomatoes were naturally sweet and never needed it, but I later learned that bought tomatoes, no matter how fresh and supposedly vine ripened, inevitably did.
It was years before I had any inkling that what I came up with was actually a lot closer to a truly Creole version than dumb beginner's luck ought to have allowed. At any rate, it was such a success that it quickly became one of our family's summer traditions.
In the half century since, I've not let a single summer pass without making it at least once. And with every bite, the years melt away until I'm ten years old and dreaming of those steamy, haunted streets of old New Orleans.
My Shrimp Creole for Two
This tradition remains a family thing: I've made it for company, but its associations are too intimate to share prodigally, so it's rare that I make more than two servings.
You can use another fat other than bacon drippings, but I've never used anything else. In my youth, I usually had to cook several strips of bacon to get them, since my mother, The Low-Fat Queen of the Universe, never saved drippings. Back then, I often crumbled the bacon over each serving. But whether my palate has become more discerning or I've just gotten old, nowadays that's too heavy for my taste. If you want to do it, however, then by all means have at it. If, on the other hand you can't or don't want to use drippings, butter or olive oil can be substituted, although the finished dish will pale by comparison.
Some of the more modern versions of Shrimp Creole contain a dark roux, but older ones rarely did. I find the recent trend of using roux in everything "Creole" monotonous, and at any rate, it's superfluous and even intrusive in a tomato-based sauce.
About 1½-1¾ pounds (3-4 large or 6-8 plum) ripe tomatoes
1½ tablespoons bacon drippings
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
2 medium or 1 large rib celery, strung and diced small
½ medium green bell pepper, stem, core, seeds and membrane removed, diced small
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons crumbled dried thyme
1 large bay leaf
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Raw sugar, if needed (see step 4)
2 pounds (headless weight) large shrimp, peeled
2 cups hot cooked rice
2 scallions, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced
1. Bring a kettle of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, cut an 'x' in the bottoms of the tomatoes and put them in a heatproof bowl. Completely cover them with boiling water and let them stand 1-to-2 minutes. Meanwhile, set a sieve over a bowl. Drain the tomatoes, then, working over the sieve, cut out the stem end and peel them, dropping the peels and stem ends into the sieve as you go. Cut them in half crosswise (lengthwise of they're plum type) and, still working over the sieve, core and remove the seeds. Chop the tomato pulp and add it to their collected juices in the bowl. You'll need about 2-2½ cups depending on how much sauce you like (and what I like is a lot).
2. Warm the bacon drippings in a deep well-seasoned iron skillet or 3-quart enameled iron Dutch oven over medium heat. As soon as it starts melting, add the onion, celery, and green pepper and sauté, stirring often, until the onion is translucent and barely beginning to color. Add the garlic, and sauté until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds.
3. Add the tomatoes with their juices, thyme, bay leaf, and tomato paste. Season well with salt, black pepper, cayenne, and a dash or so of Worcestershire sauce, stir, and bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow, steady simmer, loosely cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes.
4. Uncover, taste and adjust the seasonings, and if the tomatoes were not very sweet to begin with, add a teaspoon or so of raw sugar. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the vegetables are very tender, the tomatoes are collapsed and falling apart, and the liquid is reduced, thickened, and velvety, about 40-45 minutes longer.
[The sauce can be made up to 4 days ahead. Turn off the heat and let it cool completely, then loosely cover it until you're ready to finish and serve it. If you're making it more than four hours ahead, transfer it to a lidded storage container and refrigerate until needed. Let it sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, then gently reheat it in the same heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat.]
5. Add the shrimp and simmer until they're just curled and pink, turning them over once or twice, about 3-5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings and let it warm for half a minute or so to let them meld. Serve it spooned over rice and topped with green onions.
Recipe adapted from Essentials of Southern Cooking, copyright © 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.