Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Of Clam Strips, An Oyster Poor Boy, And A God Fearing Man
Every once in awhile, certain food cravings hit me, and I can’t stop the craving until I give in to it. I was out and about in Tampa one day recently, when I was suddenly hit with the urge to eat an oyster poor boy sandwich. I know that in a lot of places they’re often called “Po-Boys,” "Po' Boys," or “oyster samiches,” and that’s fine, but I’m going to refer to them as poor boys. Otherwise, it would bother me. Sir Winston Churchill, who is today recognized as the master of the English language, would roll in his grave if he heard anyone referring to a “samich,” and if it’s not good for Sir Winston, then it’s not good for me.
The origins of the oyster poor boy are found along the Gulf of Mexico. It probably originated in Louisiana, and consists of fried breaded oysters on a baguette. It is most often dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise or tartar sauce. Of course like all samiches, I mean sandwiches, it can also be served with onions and pickles. However the sandwich is made, I’ve never eaten one that truly disappointed me. Perhaps, some were better than others, but all were good.
As I finished up my errands around Tampa, and knowing that my favorite oyster poor boy sandwich was sold in St. Petersburg, I drove across Tampa Bay on the Gandy Bridge. Soon after crossing the bridge, and before I got to my intended destination, I came upon the Crab Shack. I had passed it many times before, but somehow, I had never found the time to stop. But on this day, I did stop. And, I’m glad I did, because I experienced a very interesting lunch, and one I won’t soon forget.
The Crab Shack is aptly named, because it actually looks like a crab shack. Well, to be honest, since I’m not an “old salt” of the sea, I’m not really sure what a real crab shack looks like, or even if there is such a thing as a crab shack. So, let me say it this way, it looks like what I believe a crab shack should look like, and that’s my final word on the matter.
After parking my vehicle, and walking through the door, I immediately heard a man’s voice in the background. There is certainly nothing unusual about hearing voices in a restaurant, unless they all happen to be inside your own head, but something about this man’s voice caught my attention. The strange thing was that the man never stopped talking. I didn’t know who the man was talking to, but whoever it was could not have possibly had a chance to slip in even a single, stray word. As the waitress directed me to my table, the man’s voice got louder. As we walked by his table, I saw that he was middle-aged, and was talking to a frail-looking elderly lady. Her skin was very pale, and her hair was as white as fresh snow. I was a little annoyed when the waitress sat me down at a table directly behind them, but the waitress was friendly, and I thought everything would work out just fine.
As the man’s voice droned on, I looked around, and saw that the walls of the Crab Shack were all adorned with nautical-themed items. There were a couple of guys sitting at the bar enjoying their beer, as well as a few other customers scattered about the place. I picked up the menu and took a look at the extensive offering of seafood and shellfish, including, oysters, mussels, scallops, clams, crab, shrimp, crab cakes, smoked mullet, and a whole lot more. In addition, alligator and frogs legs were available, as was catfish. Quite frankly, if you profess to love food that comes from the water, and can’t find something to your liking at the Crab Shack, you might as well go the grocery store and pick up a pack of frozen fish sticks, made from a combination of different types of minced fish.
The menu items all looked very good, but I had come for the oyster poor boy, and that’s what I ordered. As I waited for my food, my attention turned back to the man at the table in front of me. “You eat that bread Momma, and those fries,” he said, “I come here for the clam strips and I can’t fill up on that other stuff, you go ahead and eat it Momma.” I watched the back of his mother’s head nod as the man continued speaking, “I’ve tried Momma, I’ve done everything I can do, and you know that.” The man paused speaking only when the waitress brought him another plate of fried clam strips, and, after jamming a few more clams in his mouth, he continued, “I’m a God fearing man Momma, you know I am, but when the good book tells you to respect your parents, it means all of the time, not just some of it.” He shoved more clams in his mouth, as he continued talking. This guy was putting away clams faster than a raft of hungry sea otters.
My poor boy finally arrived and was placed in front of me. I looked down at it. Although it resembled a poor boy, something didn’t seem quite right. There were definitely fried oysters, as well as lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. But instead of the ingredients being on a baguette or a submarine roll, they were on a corn meal hamburger bun. Also, there were strips of bacon and liquid cheese covering the fried oysters. Was this really bacon on an oyster poor boy? I couldn’t imagine such a thing, and it looked a little odd, but since I was craving a poor boy, I was going to eat it.
As I tried the best I could to assemble the lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickles on top of the bacon, oysters, and bun, I refocused on the man at the table in front of me. As he ate more clam strips, his monologue continued, “that’s some good eating right here Momma, you better eat that bread, because if you don’t, I will, and I got my hands full with these damn clams.” His mother listened patiently, and I watched the back of her white-haired head nod up and down again, but she never said a word. As the waitress brought more clam strips, the man said, “You know what I’m saying, I’m around the office, and they’re around the office, but they have to realize who the boss is and who the boss isn’t.” I felt sorry for his mother, and I smirked a little trying to imagine the many things she might have been thinking. Perhaps, she was thinking that she had raised a big blabbermouth for a son, and that this was absolutely the last time she would agree to let him take her out to get something to eat. Whatever she was really thinking, even if she was sympathetic to what he was saying, I’m sure she couldn’t wait to leave.
Meanwhile, I bit into my unusual looking poor boy, and I was delighted with the taste. Somehow, the bacon and cheese interacted well with the makings of a traditional poor boy sandwich, and I liked it. The only real problem I had was with the bun. Unlike a regular poor boy, which has the food components laid out horizontally, making it easier to eat, with the hamburger bun the components were piled vertically, which made the sandwich top-heavy. As a result, oysters kept popping out of the bun, and I finally gave up and finished it with a knife and fork.
As I waited for my bill, the man was still eating clam strips, and was still talking. “Momma,” he said, “I fear God, you know that, but a man just reaches a point sometimes.” His mother, without saying a word, continued to nod. “I really don’t need no more food for the rest of the day, there’s all this good stuff right here,” he explained. As I paid the waitress, I heard him saying something in the background about “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Once again I smiled, as I suddenly imagined him morphing into Aretha Franklin right before his mother’s very eyes.
As I walked by his table on his way out, he was still picking at the clam strips on his plate. The last thing I heard, as I walked out the front door was, “I really don’t wanna eat your bread Momma, but I will.” I liked the Crab Shack, and the taste of its good, but different poor boy, and I’ll definitely return for another meal. But next time, I’m sure I won’t enjoy it quite as much, because I’ll be most likely eating by “myself.”