Key ingredient in shrimp scampi for mother-in-law is love

Kay Chapman (writer John Kessler's mother-in-law) is seen in her apartment in Sarasota. Courtesy of Rachel Kessler

Credit: Rachel Kessler

Combined ShapeCaption
Kay Chapman (writer John Kessler's mother-in-law) is seen in her apartment in Sarasota. Courtesy of Rachel Kessler

Credit: Rachel Kessler

Credit: Rachel Kessler

“So, ya gonna cook it with olive oil or buttah?”

The cab driver was grilling me on my recipe for shrimp scampi. He was a garrulous dude, a recent transplant from New York who had just moved to Sarasota, and thought it “paradise.” He was cheerfully nosy, too, and found out my wife and I were in Florida to visit her Canadian mum, who recently had made it through Hurricane Ian without any power for two days in an assisted living facility.

The driver also had found out that it was her birthday the next day, that I was the cook in the family, and that the request was shrimp scampi. As it so happens, Mr. Queens Snowbird looooooves shrimp scampi. He looked at me in the rearview mirror, his lower jaw hanging open in anticipation: olive oil or butter?

“Probably both,” I said.

“Aha, I like your style!” he beamed. “White wine and gahlic? Bed of pasta? Some Pahmesan over the top?” He held the steering wheel with his left hand and sprinkled imaginary cheese with his right.

I yup yup yupped everything, lying about the Parmesan.

The truth is, I didn’t really have a recipe for shrimp scampi. Not having grown up going to Italian American restaurants, all I knew about it was what I had learned in cooking school — that “scampi” really means langoustine in Italian, and that the dish was developed by immigrants who cooked local shrimp in the style of European langoustines.

The last time we had come to Florida, when Kay was in her old apartment, the one where she spent 2020 alone, she asked for shrimp scampi. Thinking I knew everything, I got some nice 16/20 Gulf pinks from a fishmonger, butterflied them in their shells and broiled them in white wine and garlic butter, with crusty bread on the side. That seemed langoustine-ish. She seemed surprised by the lack of pasta and the presence of shells, but appreciative.

Cooking for Kay always has been a challenge, though one I relish. She grew up during the Great Depression, the youngest of seven children, on a diet determined by affordability. Her tastes are plain, but not unsophisticated. She rather would eat something she knows she likes than something new that she might hate. Like her daughter, Arlene, she’ll go hungry instead of dealing with unappetizing food. This time, I had done my research and pretty much had settled on something like the cab driver’s recipe.

We pulled up to the assisted living complex, which had lost some trees, but otherwise was fine. So was Kay, to our relief. She was thinner than I recalled from the last visit, and more dependent on her walker. Her hair was set in a fresh, springy perm (there’s a hairdresser on-site).

I felt a lump in my throat when I saw her things in this unfamiliar space — the Murano glass statues, the green leather recliner I always fall asleep in, the cabinet filled with figurines and curios. Among them was a small Halloween decorative tombstone that read “CREEPY.” I had snuck it in years ago, as a joke, and it had made the move.

“You ready for shrimp scampi for your birthday, Mum?” Arlene asked the next morning. “Should we have it with pasta?”

“Of course,” Kay said. “How else would you serve shrimp scampi?”

The next day, I went to the good fishmonger near her place and got the medium shrimp she prefers. The large ones so often are tough, and harder to chew. Instead of linguine, I got angel hair, for the same reason.

I set to work in her small kitchenette. As I peeled and butterflied the shrimp, I imagined Kay and her late husband, John, going out to dinner in downtown Montreal.

The kids are little, and they leave them with a neighbor in their West Island suburb. I imagined a restaurant setting informed equally by “Mad Men” and “Bewitched” — burgundy carpeting, polished oak, plastic grape trellis. John’s clients and their spouses sit in a semicircular booth, the three wives tucked into the banquette. Kay has arrived with a hat pulled down over her ears and goes to the restroom to brush out her unruly, shoulder-length chestnut frizz. When she emerges, it is lustrous, and frames her big, pale eyes. The men keep stealing glances. So do the women.

They are all laughing and drinking martinis — just one for Kay, because the boys will have three, and she’ll need to drive home. She looks through the leather-bound menu: steak pizzaiola, veal marsala, all those heavy sauces. The shrimp scampi looks good.

I put so much butter in the shrimp scampi I was cooking. I wanted to make it as caloric as possible. Salt, too — first a sprinkle, then a small handful. Kay likes her food properly seasoned.

She ate everything on her plate, even all the pasta, which had begun to solidify into a kind of butter/noodle brick.

“That was very good, John,” she said. I felt relief.

Was it really shrimp scampi? I don’t think so, but, when you love someone, you don’t cook with a recipe. You cook with your heart.

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