It’s been a tough week since our last issue, as we laid my father to rest in a New Orleans cemetery on a beautiful Wednesday morning. Humor me, if you will. I felt it would be prudent to sort of pay tribute to him, as he makes up half of what has shaped me, but especially as that shaping pertains to cooking.
I grew up in a house where both parents cooked, sometimes out of joy, other times out of necessity. Though there are things I learned from my mom that I cherish and routinely practice, I must save those stories for another time. Today I’ll focus on my dad, Darryl “Mac” MacDonald.
Let me start by saying this is by no means an attempt to elicit sympathy of any kind. If you knew him you know he’d hate for anyone to make a fuss over him. But it’s important you get who he was to understand his impact on me from a culinary standpoint.
My dad was a bit of a thrill-seeker. Before I was around there were stories of him and motorcycles. He had his pilot’s license young and by the time I was 4 he had built his own airplane, leading to a harrowing crash on its maiden voyage. Shortly after that he purchased a parachute and began skydiving into sporting events, shopping centers and country club swimming pools. Racing cars, swinging from ropes like Tarzan and anything shy of shark wrestling was no surprise to us youngsters. We expected it.
That desire for adventure also manifested itself as a zeal for food and music. He was a decent singer who could strum a couple of chords and played bass in a band in the ‘70s. When I got a guitar at 14 and showed a little promise, he traded a pistol for a month’s worth of guitar lessons from a great picker in my hometown. That set me on my path, as did the way he’d cook.
In the kitchen the man was hell on wheels. He wasn’t a recipe guy but he was much more than a scavenger. What I learned from watching him was to find out what makes a recipe work and from that point know how to lend it your own spin.
Cooking late-night hash for us when we’d return from the bars on a weekend home from college was something he excelled at. All kinds of seafood dips were top-notch memories. The pork — oh, the pork was artistic.
Peeling shrimp was like a ballet for him. There was a patience to it that blew me away. Crawfish were similar. Crawfish omelets from the previous evening’s boil (if we managed to have any left over) were a specialty. He once gave a state trooper a sack of crawfish, and later when the cop pulled him over for speeding he let him go. I’ve almost convinced myself he lived as long as he did because he was trying to make it to one more crawfish season. That was his style.
Lump crabmeat muffins never disappointed anyone lucky enough to partake. He loved to painstakingly stuff shrimp, usually with dressed-up boxed stuffing. I don’t understand how it could be so good but was.
Our friends and family have their favorite Darryl dishes, and of course I have mine. His barbecue shrimp is unmatched. I’ll tell you why.
Before a big family reunion Dad would go down to the docks when the shrimpers rolled in and meticulously ask every boat to show him their big ones. I mean everybody. He’d return with these monster shrimp and grumble if they didn’t seem as large as last time, and it would be a sin to do it any other way. In affairs of seafood, or any food really, he was all in or not at all.
We share some of those same genes and maybe it isn’t always for the better, but it usually is. It’s better because it shows commitment. It shows you believe in something and you won’t settle for second-rate shrimp. If you intend to feed someone then you should do your best to make them remember it and they will appreciate you for it. If you’re going to make an impression, make it a good one.
I’d like to think that I didn’t disappoint him very often. Living hours away, we only saw each other a few times per year so when we got together it was a pretty big party. But I remember about a year ago he was at my house trying to cut an egg carton in half. I say “try” because my knives were not very sharp. He made a pass with three different blades and let me know he’d just have to “get the serrated knife and saw on it.”
I laughed at the idea that it bothered him so and if this is the worst thing that happened that weekend then things weren’t so bad. But after he went back to New Orleans it began to eat at me. All I could think was, “Why the hell are my knives not sharpened? How could I be so boneheaded?” So I bought a better sharpener and now keep them keener than I ever have. To tell the truth, I feel better about myself because of it.
Without consciously trying I’ve found myself going the extra mile for something that may not mean anything to anyone but me. If it means traveling an hour for one ingredient or carefully keeping the little fans on the shrimp tail intact, I’ll do what it takes. I get my two sons involved when I cook, not as a chore but as a choice. They know when we have to put in a little more effort and gladly make the trips with me.
So keep your knife sharp, never settle on second-rate shrimp and make a good impression. Maybe we can have a little Darryl in us after all. Adieu, Pops.