My Family Recipe

Waiting for Tuesdays, Dad’s Day Off—& His Casino Shrimp Scampi

On time, taste, and memory.

April  2, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Thirty years ago in the kitchen of the restaurant Capriccio, Chef Vito stands 5 feet 7 inches tall in a white paper hat, shouting the recipe’s ingredients in a thick Italian accent. “You got that, Steve?”

Balancing in black dress shoes, my father twists through the crowded kitchen and back into the hallway that leads to the dining room. The double acting doors swing shut behind him and then open again like a set of rudders. His shoulders are tipped forward, his right arm an L beneath a tray, scrunching the front of his pressed, white button-up. The tray, loaded with plates, floats on his fingers. I’ve got him right here in my mind like this, fluid and moving around the corner, toward his table, his body entirely the direction it’s headed in—the tips of his shoes, his nose, his eyes tracking the table as he approaches. This is his separate world of work, long nights in the Atlantic City casinos I knew so little about. The chandeliers are dim to cast a kind of glamor. In crystal glasses on white tablecloths, chunky ice glints with amber. Now Vito’s shouting at someone else in the kitchen. His voice carries, but the kitchen doors flap on their hinges open then shut, open, shut, buffeting the sound.

“He spoke perfect English when he wanted to cuss you out,” my father says. The recipe is one of a dozen from his server days: Vito’s Shrimp Scampi, which isn’t really a scampi but a roasted garlic cream sauce that blushes pink with chopped tomatoes served over linguine—simple enough to wing, and really, really good.

I wonder if Vito, out of sight in the kitchen, is character or caricature. “He really was this funny, fierce guy from Italy with a lot of know-how and fire,” my father tells me. “And he was cool. At the end of the night if we threw one of the cooks five bucks, they'd make us pretty much anything we wanted, and Vito would turn a blind eye. We also saved any leftover wine during the night and drank it as a team when service was over. Just some of the perks.”

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He’s talking about Capriccio, to be sure, but also a continuum of perks across years and shifting restaurants. Vito pops off and my father bursts through the kitchen doors again, heading for the table, dropping the plate in front of Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch. No, this time it’s Tony Bennett. Now it’s Latoya Jackson with her luxurious crimps of hair and Maraschino cherry lipstick. She’s recently finished her Playboy photoshoot (the one with the snake) and leaves an autographed photo as gratuity. “As you can imagine the mortgage company sent it back when I mailed it in as a form of payment.”

For my father, some nights in the casinos are boring, long hours, hurt feet. But some nights a Wild West recklessness meets celebrity bravado and glitz, shimmery crystal chandeliers, slot machines reeling above weird green carpets, chips clicking together, hundred dollar tips, people in sweat suits and gold chains ordering rounds of King Louis. Donald Trump’s helicopter dips below the restaurant window, then rises higher again, heading for its golden helipad in New York. Buon viaggio. See you in a few decades, I guess.

...a Wild West recklessness meets celebrity bravado and glitz, shimmery crystal chandeliers, slot machines reeling above weird green carpets, chips clicking together, hundred dollar tips, people in sweat suits and gold chains ordering rounds of King Louis.

This is what I actually remember: If I can last into the a.m. on Saturday nights, the headlights of my father’s car rinse the driveway. A yellow glare sparks across my bedroom window. The front door brushes the mud-rug as he comes in, and I can hear his dress shoes hit the Berber carpet as he takes them off, one, then the other. His button-up shirt, hanging on the coat tree, smells of grease and strangers’ food. There’s an orange stain on the sleeve. I’m on my way to join him in the living room where he’s already flipped the TV on. In his undershirt and work pants, he’s leaning back into the oversized chair, his chair, its fabric soft, worn. This last pocket of night belongs to him, sometimes us, his tired body in the chair, soon a snore, then another, the blue flicker of the TV, its sound until I turn it off.


Photo by Max McDonough

The astonishing fact that language exists, I’ll never get over it. I’ve paused him here, my father, on the soles of his black dress shoes. His right shoulder and back tense with the weight of the tray. The restaurant’s dining room is noisy with guests. It’s a kind of landscape—the murals, the arched windows, the patio outside, electric blue umbrellas, boardwalk lights, the night beach below littered with styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, broken shells, the black Atlantic rolling in to dispense them. I can never exactly know this scene, though I can try to approach parts of it, imagine, approximate the truth he’s conferred, in his own words, “in now specific order.” He’s given me the sensory signifiers with which a truth begins to find form.

I think food can work like that—as emotional nexus, dendrite in a web of dendrites, the same way a word has meanings that reach out and touch other meanings. I’m talking about noodles, another August night in South Jersey, the smell of roasted garlic, the linguine slick with cream sauce that starts to coat the fork as I twirl it… It’s my younger brother’s favorite meal and, after his trip to the emergency room, my father’s made it to cheer him up. My brother sits across from me. He won’t lift his eyes to meet mine. His right palm is wrapped with gauze stained with dried blood in the crease where his thumb and index finger meet. It’s a Tuesday, one of my father’s days off.

“Well, did it work?” my father asks. “The time machine. Did you see any dinos?”

To avoid having to speak, I stuff another shrimp into my mouth.

“Not even a stegosaurus? Your favorite, C.” By now my father’s wearing a goofy smile. “How many brains does it have again? I forget.” He didn’t forget, of course.

“More than Max,” my brother says. “Two brains. One tiny one in the head and one tiny one in its leg.”

I can’t stop looking at the blood on my brother’s gauze. I remember the bright shock of first seeing it, seeing it now, flinging me back to the top of the sandy power lines hill earlier that day. My hands grip the handle of the grocery cart we found abandoned like so much else out there in our woods. My brother’s sitting in the cart on a pile of packed dirt and dried grass—our crude time machine. We stick some old tin cans in its dirt to serve as dials and knobs. We fashion two navigational levers (to drive the thing) from bicycle spokes each with a sharp tip. For grip, we pierce each spoke into a pine cone. Planted into the dirt dashboard, they look like flimsy aviation controls or TV antennae stuck into big, wooden marshmallows. “You ready?” I say.

“Wait, wait, wait,” my brother says, adjusting his swimming goggles. His shaggy hair tangles in the translucent, rubber straps. My brother clutches a pine cone in each hand, ready for take-off.

“And don’t forget—like we talked about—don’t come back till you’ve got proof of where you land. Got it?”

“Got it!”

These are our pine barrens still teeming with magic. They’re nestled between developments and trailer parks and power lines that fill themselves with garbage: mildewed shoes, living room furniture, wire hangers clinking in trees, dissevered parts of bikes peeling green with rust. The ghost of ownership collecting itself around each thing makes us wonder who left it there, why, and how long ago. The waste of suburbia: a treasure trove of other, unknown lives… Warm overcast blueshifts the sand to a dull metallic. Overhead, latticed steel towers string power cables farther over the distance than we can see. The charged air hums with electricity we can hear if we hold our breath.

“Here we go,” I yell, pushing the time machine as hard as I can. I want to get a running start before we hit the hill’s edge and down he goes.

In the cart’s cage, he clutches fast the pine cone knobs with anticipation, pretending to steer as we gain speed. When we hit the slope, I let go. But instead of barreling down and long into the past, the cart flips over. Spills far forward, tumbles. Slides on its side, a scraping sound. I rush down after him, skidding, a cloud of dust and loose grass spinning in air. When I heave the cart off my brother, his hand is a flash of red. One of the bicycle spokes, snapped, protrudes from the meat between his thumb and index finger.

Just when he sees it, and not before, holding up the hand, he screams. The realization being the frightening thing. Before I know what to say he’s already running into a future I can’t plan for, back to my father at the house, sand kicking up behind each sneaker.


Fifteen years will pass before I remember that moment when the grocery cart flips and I suddenly know just how pinned to the present tense my body is. The power lines' charge twitches across my skin, the small hairs on my prepubescent arm. The feeling spins—attaches to the lemon-taste of the scampi my father makes to console my younger brother, the guilt I feel at the table, the crisp shrimp I impale on my fork—and takes form in my hippocampus.

That’s one story. Here’s another.

Tofte, Minnesota, half a life away from South Jersey. The blizzard tightens around the cabin as though from all sides. The windows blur, bluish, streaked with ice melting on the warm panes. Meanwhile: cards, banter, and a table whose scratched grain has seen more decades than any of us except my father maybe. In the tiny kitchen, I’m deveining raw shrimp while my adult-ish siblings and father try to fib their way through the game. Money’s on the table. “Bull,” Q. says when my father flaps two kings face-down onto the center pile. Earnest man, he thinks too long before he lies. His tell.

We’re on vacation north from his house in St. Paul, getting snowed in, listening to the lake lap at the basalt shore close enough to hear with the windows shut. My father loves it. It’s the nearest thing to an ocean Minnesota’s got. Too obvious: I think it reminds him of those long hours waiting tables while the Atlantic drones darkly just beyond the restaurant patio, the boardwalk. Or maybe, younger then, reminds him of fun with work buddies after the last table closes out and the night’s tip money carries them into the early morning hours, casino lights flaring—that feeling in your gut a night, a day, could take you anywhere.

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12 Comments

Christine S. April 18, 2019
You made my heart sing!
 
Author Comment
Max M. April 22, 2019
I'm so glad to hear this!
 
Emma L. April 9, 2019
Wow. Loved reading this, Max!
 
Eric K. April 8, 2019
Poetry, Max. I don't know why, but this line is devastating to me: "The astonishing fact that language exists, I’ll never get over it. I’ve paused him here, my father, on the soles of his black dress shoes. His right shoulder and back tense with the weight of the tray." Devastatingly sad? Devastatingly beautiful? Both, probably.
 
Suzanne D. April 4, 2019
Such a beautiful story, Max. Thank you for sharing it with us!
 
Wendell B. April 3, 2019
My god. This is gorgeous. Do you have anything else?
 
Author Comment
Max M. April 4, 2019
Thanks, Wendell! I'm excited to read your recent scientists piece. This is my first food essay but I've got some other stuff (mostly poems) that you can find on my website.
 
Wendell B. April 4, 2019
Well if you want to write about food, you're in the right spot! :) Keep up the good work.
 
Amanda H. April 2, 2019
Really loved this, Max.
 
Author Comment
Max M. April 4, 2019
Thank you so much, Amanda!
 
Maggie S. April 2, 2019
So incredibly beautiful, Max. Words you can chew. Thank you for bringing this to us!
 
Author Comment
Max M. April 4, 2019
<3