My First Dinner Party
When I was sixteen I decided to throw a dinner party. I invited five of my closest friends and dressed in a black velvet mini dress, a necklace, and platform booties. It being the 90s, my lips were lined with brown pencil and filled in with clear gloss. On the menu there was a salad—from a bag, I believe. And strawberry cake—from a box, I’m sure. I baked crescent rolls and chicken breasts. The pièce de résistance: Shrimp Creole.
Shrimp Creole was my stepmother’s dish. My brother and I had been introduced to her eight years earlier. Initially, I greeted her South Carolina accent and fuchsia lipstick with curiosity, my brother with hesitation. What we did agree on was that she couldn’t cook. She brought into our home Hamburger Helper, Rice A-Roni, and a crockpot. She burned bags of minute rice. And when she did, we laughed behind her back. Just eight and ten years old, we felt uniquely qualified to judge her. Of course we did. Our mother—with few exceptions—made everything from scratch.
But then there was her Shrimp Creole. For two children from Kentucky, it was a true delicacy. We’d known shrimp to be served with cocktail sauce, in Chinese fried rice, or, on the occasional Friday night, all you can eat at Sizzler. Her shrimp, stewed in tomatoes, onions, spices, and bell peppers, made for a heady experience. With this one dish, our stepmother became, in her own way, refined.
And refinement was what I was after. That night, chicken was baked, not fried. No catfish on the menu, no macaroni and cheese. I needed something that would say that I was not just anyone. My natural hair and orange suede platforms did that, so would my stepmother’s signature dish. I made it from memory. By then she had separated from my father and was living in a different state. Estranged from her myself, I wasn’t about to call her long distance for a recipe.
My dad kindly went away the night of the dinner party. Ashli and Shula wore mini dresses and heels. Asha, one of her catsuits. Britney, a black blouse. And D’lana, a plaid shirt and baggy jeans. Photos from the evening show that there were candles on the table, but no one thought to light them. In my favorite polaroid, I’ve just entered the dining room smiling ear to ear with a bottle of sparkling grape juice in each hand. Scribbled on the back is the date, the occasion, and “Brian S. came!!!”
I hadn’t invited him. Ashli and Shula did as a surprise. He came with two cousins no one knew, wearing a vintage maroon leather jacket. He is visible in the corner of the photo. While I raise my juice, he looks down at his food, eager to finish his plate. After dessert, his cousins danced to Lil’ Kim with my friends. Although nothing ever happened between us, the dinner party had been a success.
I’m reminded of that night every time I set the table for de Porres. Of the many things to do the day of, setting the table is, by far, my least favorite. I obsess over whether the knife is facing the correct direction or if the glass is on the right side of the plate. In those moments, I am a sixteen-year-old eager to showcase her sophistication. And deathly afraid of being unmasked as such. Thankfully, the anxiety dissipates once the first guest has arrived and I’ve poured us both cocktails. The candles get lit. I gather everyone to the table. I make a brief toast and clink glasses with my guests, one by one.
This recipe comes to me from food historian and New Orleans native Lolis Eric Elie. No need to snatch wigs, I’m well aware that shrimp étouffée and Shrimp Creole are not one and the same. I’m including it here because the combination of tomato, shrimp, and rice is seductive to me in all forms. Furthermore, had I known how to make it at age sixteen, there’s a fair chance I would’ve served it.
Lolis, by his own admission, scribbled this down in a few minutes time. It was intended to be less of a formal recipe and more of a guide. While I don’t stray too far from his instruction, I’ve done a few things differently. Namely, the addition of Hungarian paprika and the added step of blending the shrimp shells and heads with the stock and then straining them. This is something Pablo does for all shellfish stocks, as it makes for a richer and more layered result. Lastly, if you’re in Southern California and have access to ridgeback prawns, I highly recommend you use them. Wild Local Seafood is a good source. Note that, because of the weight of their shells, you’ll need about two pounds of ridgeback prawns to get one pound of shrimp meat
Makes 6 very filling servings
1-2 pound of head-on shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells and heads retained, along with four whole shrimp to be used as garnish
1/4 cup vegetable/olive/canola/peanut/ or grapeseed oil
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1/2 stick butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1/2 cup bell pepper, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 small can of tomato paste
2 tablespoons flour
high quality Hungarian paprika (to taste)
cayenne (to taste)
black pepper (to taste)
sliced green onion for garnish
tablespoon chopped parsley
In a bowl, season shrimp with salt, cracked black pepper. Add half the finely chopped garlic, cover and refrigerate.
In a stockpot, heat 1/4 cup oil. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the shrimp heads and shells and allspice. Heat the shrimp shells, stirring constantly, until pink on the inside and slightly brown on the outside—about five minutes. Add 4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for about twenty minutes. Remove the shells and discard them, saving the stock. Or, if you have a Vitamix or very good blender, blend the contents of the pot and put through a sieve.
While the stock is reducing by half, begin the rest of the dish.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions. Saute until translucent. Reduce the heat and add all the other vegetables. Cover, and cook on very low heat for about thirty minutes. When the vegetables are soft, brown, and sweet add the flour stir well. Add half can of tomato paste. Add 2-3 cups of stock. Continue to stir. Add the shrimp. Cook three to five minutes, until shrimp are pink. Season to taste.
Broil the whole shrimp with salt, pepper, oil, and paprika.
Serve over hot jasmine rice. (When cooking the rice, I add one clove of garlic, salt, and a tablespoon of olive oil to the water, I don’t stir it until it’s near the end of its cooking time).
Garnish with whole shrimp, green onion, and parsley.