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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Shrimp, Smoke, & Shirley

January 15, 2020

In the 1960s and early 1970s of my youth there wasn’t a lot of dining out in my family. Most special occasions were hosted by my grandmother in her dining room. On the rare instance our family dined out my favorite restaurant was a place called Captain John’s.

Captain John’s was located on Howling Wolf’s Highway 49 in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. It was owned and operated by a local businessman who later became a city councilman. It was a typical coastal seafood joint with nautical-themed paper placemats, blue napkins, a plastic basket of Captain’s Wafers with foil-wrapped butter pats on the table, and trout amandine, stuffed flounder, several varieties of Gulf shrimp, and oysters on the menu. There were two things I looked forward to ordering at Captain John’s as soon as I heard that we would be going there— fried shrimp and a Shirley Temple.

Fried shrimp were the pinnacle of dining out when I was a kid. Whether it was at Captain John’s, Baricev’s on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, or another restaurant out of town while on vacation. No matter where I was, I always ordered fried shrimp.

As a restaurateur I know the psychology behind the best menu offerings— the perfect menu item is one that tastes great, is easy to prepare in a commercial kitchen, is costed out well, and is an item that one doesn’t typically cook at home. If an item can meet those four criteria, it is a keeper, and likely an all-star in a menu lineup. Back then I didn’t know anything about menu dynamics, I just knew that we never ate fried shrimp at home. I loved fried shrimp, and so that is what I ordered.

The Shirley Temple thing was different. That was probably my attempt to be a grown-up. The adults were having cocktails before dinner and so I had something similar. For those who didn’t grow up drinking Shirley Temples, it is a non-alcoholic cocktail consisting of Sprite or ginger ale with a shot of grenadine (pomegranate juice sweetened with sugar and flavored with a touch of lemon juice and orange flower water), garnished with a cherry.

I grew up as a child of the cocktail generation. In my book “Deep South Parties,” I described it this way:

My earliest memory is of a cocktail party my parents were hosting in the living room of our small home on 22nd Avenue in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The year was 1965, and I was four years old. After a steady Saturday evening diet of Flipper, I Dream of Jeanie, and Get Smart, I was under the covers at 8:30 pm I can remember lying in my bed, fully awake, hearing the strange, magical, yet foreign sounds coming from the living room— the clinking of ice in glasses, laughter, excited conversation, background music, and dancing— the quiet roar of a smoky room in full bloom. It was romantic, it was mysterious, and it sounded like fun.

It was a cocktail party smack dab in the middle of the “Cocktail Era.” In the living room, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole were crooning on the Hi-Fi system— a piece of wooden furniture as large as a sideboard. In the dining room a small mahogany dining table was lined with cocktail weenies, meatballs, cheese spreads, and sour cream-laced cold dips. Scattered around both rooms room were bowlfuls of salted peanuts, plates filled with my grandmother’s bacon-wrapped crackers, and ashtrays of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The kitchen doubled as a bar and a well-stocked cabinet full of scotch, bourbon, vodka, gin, soda, and tonic was open all night. Throughout the house were cigarettes.

Parties were full of cigarettes. The world was full of cigarettes. They smoked on television, they smoked while cooking, they smoked while eating, they smoked while drinking, they smoked while driving, they smoked while drinking and driving, they smoked during sex, they smoked after sex, they smoked while sleeping, and they smoked while smoking. The Camel ads of the day claimed, “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.” Old Gold promised “Not a cough in a carload.” Today smoking is taboo, and during a party, mostly reserved for the backyard, carport, sidewalk, or balcony. But in those days smoking was sexy.

It is telling that my earliest memory is of a party, not of a toy, or a relative, or a favorite blanket, but a party. I gave up drinking in 1983, and smoking in 1995. I got married which almost forced me to give up sex, and now my only vice is food.

I still order fried shrimp in a restaurant every once in a while, but I haven’t had a Shirley Temple in over 50 years.

Whether it’s a good idea to have children drinking mocktails at an early age is a topic for another column on another day. These days my family dines out a lot, but I don’t remember ever ordering Shirley Temples for my kids.

In our breakfast/meat-and-three concept The Midtowner, there are over 500 photographs hanging on the walls. Most are of old Hattiesburg people and places. There are a few of my family and friends scattered throughout the walls. Among the personal photos is one of my family at the Mississippi Press Convention at the Buena Vista hotel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I love this photo because there are only a couple of the four of us all together. I like to think that this one is representative of our family dynamic and personalities in those days. The photo would have been taken the summer before my father died. My brother, mother, father, and I are sitting at a banquet table towards the end of a meal. My mother and father are smiling and seem very happy. There is no time stamp, but it is obviously late and probably way past bedtimes for my brother and me. My brother— always the responsible, well-behaved one— looks as if he is worn out, exhausted, and barely awake and about to fall out of his chair from exhaustion (probably because he was in charge of chasing me around the hotel dining room).

I am in the foreground, wide-eyed and wide awake. Sitting in front of my barely touched food plate is an empty glass. It probably represents the final few drops of my fourth or fifth refill of a sugar-laden Shirley Temple mocktail. In that moment all was right with the world.

View today’s recipe: Fried Shrimp

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