Kids, we better get busy.
Pat Conroy fully expects all the shrimp in Beaufort to be pickled for his funeral.
He said so in “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life.”
It’s in a chapter called “Why Dying Down South is More Fun.”
It’s more fun because of the food.
And for Conroy, that meant pickled shrimp.
“When a good friend dies, I take two pounds of shrimp to the mourners,” he wrote. “When a great friend dies, I go to five pounds. When I die, I fully expect all the shrimp in Beaufort to be pickled that day.”
Sadly, that day has come. Conroy died at home on Friday night, about a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His funeral Mass is to be held Tuesday at the St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Lady’s Island.
Conroy shares his famous recipe for pickled shrimp in the book, written in conjunction with Suzanne Williamson Pollak and published in 2004 by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday. It’s dedicated to “the cooking partner of my life, Cassandra King.”
I like this Conroy book because I can understand its characters, like homemade mayonnaise, and it doesn’t make me cry.
In fact, it makes me laugh.
It gave Hilda Gay Upton and me a big laugh Sunday afternoon. She likes the part where Conroy tries to coax her Shrimp Burger recipe out of her. It’s from the Shrimp Shack, an open-air, tree-house kind of affair on the side of U.S. 21 on St. Helena Island.
“Hilda, an obstinate Lowcountry woman whose husband is a shrimper, refuses even to tell me if there is shrimp in her ‘secret recipe,’ ” Conroy wrote.
This went on for quite some time. He promised her fame. Hilda laughs about him putting in some fancy magazine that she was voted Best Personality in Beaufort High School’s class of 1959, four years ahead of Conroy.
And he said he was going to resort to telling people her Shrimp Burgers were made with roadkill. And he did it in the cookbook, describing her shoveling raccoons into a truck, but quickly said it was a joke.
Even that — without the recipe — was good enough for a gaggle of out-of-town women to come traipsing to Hilda’s house for her to sign Pat’s cookbook.
Conroy was famous for his pickled shrimp when he lived in Atlanta in the 1970s. He took it to the house when friends died. He wrote that Olive Ann Burns, the author of “Cold Sassy Tree,” made him give her the recipe when her husband, Andy Sparks, died.
“Talking about food at a funeral is one of the ways we start to heal ourselves,” Conroy wrote.
When we moved to the Lowcountry, it seemed like everyone had an upside down john boat by the house. A lot of places in today’s alleged Lowcountry won’t even let you have a boat in the yard.
We lived in Ridgeland, where the folks went into the creeks for shrimp along about September. They went at night, using lights that made the eyes of shrimp kicking across the water turn laser red.
They put the shrimp up in quart milk cartons.
Shrimp and brown gravy had to be made with peppered bacon from Boy Daley’s store, they insisted.
We soon had our own john boat. But that didn’t mean I knew how to cast a net, much less bring anything to the boat other than oyster shells. We enjoyed our fresh creek shrimp. When we sold the boat, we figured it cost us $342 a pound.
Hilda remembers that everybody was foolishly fond of the pickled shrimp Nan Bowers Kilpatrick of Ridgeland delivered every year at Christmas time.
Nan grew up on Bay Street in Beaufort, living with family beneath her father’s barber shop, “and enjoyed the benefits of growing up on the waterfront she so dearly loved,” her obituary read in 2014.
Lord, I hope someone took pickled shrimp to the house when she passed away.
And that we won’t embarrass ourselves by forgetting the pickled shrimp for our dear friend Pat Conroy.
Pat Conroy’s Pickled Shrimp
1 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
4 bay leaves, crushed
One 2-ounce bottle capers, drained and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 pounds large (21-25 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1. Mix all the ingredients except the shrimp in a large heatproof glass or ceramic bowl.
2. In a medium stockpot over high heat, bring 4 quarts abundantly salted water to a rolling boil. Add the shrimp and cook until just pink, about 2 minutes. (The shrimp will continue to “cook” in the marinade.) Drain and immediately transfer to the marinade.
3. Bring to room temperature, cover tightly, and marinate overnight in the refrigerator. Transfer shrimp and marinade to a glass serving compote or bowl. Serve chilled.
From: “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life” by Pat Conroy with Suzanne Williamson Pollak