John Carlson: What I Ate On My Vacation

What’s swimming out there? Future grouper sandwiches. Photo by Nancy CarlsonWhat’s swimming out there? Future grouper sandwiches. Photo by Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

I don’t want to sound food-obsessed, but if I ever visit Giza, Egypt, and run into a street vendor pushing a killer shish-kebab cart, then somebody asks me, “Whadaya think of the pyramids?” I’m liable to answer, “What pyramids?”

Shish-kebabs? Mmmmm

That’s also why if you ask me what I “did” on our last Gulf Coast visit, I’ll say I did four grouper sandwiches, eight spicy broiled shrimp, three bodacious burgers and a burrito big enough that you wouldn’t want to drop it on your foot.

This should probably strike me as sad, and sometimes it does. Classier people travel to broaden their life perspectives and gain new appreciation of the beauty and people found in other places. But when I’m sitting on a beach down there at dusk, staring across the Gulf as that big fireball sinks into the sea, I’m not thinking about the magnificent sunset. I’m wondering how many of the groupers out there are gonna end up swimming around in my digestive juices.

Fact is, though, on this trip I did get educated in the art of peel-and-eat shrimp consumption. As noted in a personal Facebook post a while back, I was dismembering these poor little crustaceans like Jeffrey Dahmer run amok in Shrimp City, hosting a bloody Pampered Chef party. Looking on in outright disgust, Nancy could only shake her head in sympathy with the shrimp and mutter, “You know they had mothers.”

Peel-and-eat shrimp? It was more like dismember-and-eat. Photo by John Carlson

Peel-and-eat shrimp? It was more like dismember-and-eat. Photo by John Carlson

Our waiter, perhaps noting Nancy’s horror before wincing himself at the shameless depth of my shrimp depravity, screeched to a halt at our table while pulling on a pair of black rubber gloves. Grabbing one of my shrimp firmly at both ends, right before my eyes he yanked sharply and voila! Just like that, it was perfectly peeled. Well, except for some of its pathetic little shrimp legs flopping around in the air conditioning breeze.

Anyway, with that lesson fresh in mind, I peeled my last three shrimp looking as sophisticated as a native Coastal Floridian. The scene was so touching, during my triumphant exit from the restaurant, teary-eyed diners stood respectfully as I passed, with the bar band breaking into a stirring rendition of “One Tin Soldier,” the theme song from the movie “Billy Jack.” Granted, it’s possible that last part largely happened only inside my head, but it sure felt real.

What wasn’t just inside my head was the fact that, nice as the peel-and-eat shrimp were, the grouper sandwiches were even better. This just goes to prove that, in the weird world of fish, looks aren’t everything. Groupers are fish that you might even call butt-ugly, as opposed to the beauty of a rainbow trout or a sleek tarpon. On the other hand, you don’t want to call groupers butt-ugly to their faces, since they can grow bigger than the boats fishermen use to catch them with. A case in point: Down in Florida, an angler once hooked a four-foot shark, but a passing grouper took a shine to it and swallowed it whole.

That’s one gulp.

Happily, as far as I can tell, there’s no record of groupers eating people. This means we apparently like the taste of groupers more than groupers like the taste of us, which is probably fortunate.

Meanwhile, my hamburgers on this trip were fabulous, too! That’s not to say Florida is so all-fired special, hamburger-wise. I mean, you never hear anybody say, “Going to Florida? You gotta try the hamburgers down there!” But ten years ago, nobody asked how you wanted your hamburger cooked, either. When I was a kid working for McDonald’s, had a customer asked, “Can I get my burger cooked medium?” we’d have uncaged Ronald McDonald to chase him around the parking lot. But now with every burger I ordered down there, my waiter or waitress asked how I wanted it cooked, and I always answered, “Medium.”

By some miracle, my burgers invariably showed up at the table just how I’d asked for them. Wow, I’d think, between tasty bites.

But the guys at the Mexican takeout joint where I ordered my burrito didn’t ask how I wanted the ground burger inside it cooked. Nevertheless, as they threw it together, my eyes grew wider and wider. When they finally added the cheese, rice, lettuce, refried beans, sour cream and salsa, then wrapped the tortilla around it, this burrito looked like a football, and I don’t mean one that Tom Brady had under-inflated. This was a fully inflated burrito. Carrying it back to our room, I had to grab the stairway railing to help pull myself up, my burrito was so heavy.

It was along the way that I estimated it weighed four pounds, but it could have been a little under that. On the other hand, it could have been a little over that, too. I just knew that when I finished eating it, I sat staring into the utter blackness of the Gulf of Mexico, moaning over what felt like a four-pound burrito ball rolling around in my belly, knocking my other organs out of the way. It was nearly midnight before I worked up the moxie to waddle into our room, swearing, “Never again. Never, ever, ever again.”

Seizing on my moment’s weakness, Nancy proposed that on future visits, instead of food, we imbibe in experiences. You know, stuff like walking hand-in-hand along the beach, chartering a boat to go ocean fishing, and visiting the injured pelicans at the seabird sanctuary. Naturally, I said, “Anything you say, darling.”

Still, if I know me, by the time our next Gulf trip rolls around, I’ll probably try downing five grouper sandwiches, ten broiled shrimp and four bodacious burgers. As for a burrito?

Suppose anybody down there makes a five-pounder?


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A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.