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Sunday Journal

Home is where the crawfish are found

Published November 13, 2005

Crawfish season is said to begin around January, peak in April and May, and end in late June. At some point during those six months of just about every year that I knew my Grampa, we'd get a frantic call from Nanny - my grandmother - who'd shriek into the phone, "You got to take care-a the cats! Daddy's got to have some crawfish!"

We knew what that meant.

You can take the boy out of the bayou and plant him any place you want, including St. Petersburg, where the fishing's as good as you'll find anywhere, but you can't take the bayou out of the boy, no matter how old he is.

Grampa was born Malcolm Felix Marks in 1897 into a French-speaking family in Assumption Parish, La., a place in Cajun country known for its wetlands and bayous, not to mention its stunningly continuous round of food festivals. There he learned the essentials of life: succulent crawfish drenched in hot, tangy sauce, peppery file gumbo made with a rich brown roux, Creole jambalaya loaded with shrimp and rice, and the thick, black chicory coffee his father hand-ground every morning.

Grampa was meticulous on his boats, but in the kitchen he was the messiest, most chaos-producing cook I've ever seen - with the exception of my mother, who inherited his culinary gene. The biggest fight I ever saw the two of them have was in 1963 over the proper way to cook lima beans. Mama threw Grampa out of the house and then threw the pot out after him. Still, nobody could make a baked redfish melt in your mouth like he could.

When Grampa's annual crawfish craving hit, the need was serious and the scene seldom varied. He'd squeal into the alley behind the house at 2314 First Ave. N, march through the back door - leaving it open behind him - rattle the china on his way through the kitchen and head straight for his bedroom, where he'd yank a suitcase out of a closet and start throwing clothes into it.

The hair on the back of Nanny's neck would stand straight up, because she knew the drill when Grampa had to have some crawfish. Although it would have been only 10 o'clock in the morning, she would have been all dressed up in high heels and a tight dress, with her long, golden hair pulled into a thick chignon, her makeup perfect except for a caking of her face powder caused by the steamy water she was using to mop the bathroom floor.

Yes, my grandmother did her housework in heels and pearls. She did this because Grampa never gave advance notice of his intentions. If she wanted to keep up with him, it meant always being ready to go anywhere, whether it was to Derby Lane in the afternoon or Baton Rouge in the morning. Impulse ruled.

"Where you goin', Daddy?" Nanny would have shouted in her high-pitched voice, a timbered accent from her native Macon, Jaw-juh. The words "I gotta get some crawfish" would still be hanging in the air when Nanny was flying to the phone, arranging for us to come feed the cats and water the plants - for no one could predict the length of these trips - and then she was racing to her bedroom to yank down her own suitcase.

As soon as Grampa finished his 30 seconds of packing, he was out the door, revving the engine on whatever beastmobile he was driving, throwing it hard into reverse and backing out into the alley. Nanny would tear through the house, holding her suitcase together, figuring she'd get everything folded up neat while they were driving.

Grampa never paused for her. Twice she had to run down the alley in her heels and tight dress and was only able to get into the back seat because he'd had to stop at the corner for another car to pass by. As far as I know, Nanny always managed to dive into the back seat (the only place she'd sit when he was driving), though something sticks in my mind about his leaving her behind once.

It was no secret to anyone who knew him that Grampa wasn't an aligned soul, but I don't think the crawfish were to blame. I believe he was just homesick.

- Linda Guggino Humphers is a frequent Sunday Journal contributor. She lives in Clearwater.

[Last modified November 10, 2005, 14:13:02]

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