My first encounter with a real live (dead) sea monster occurred on the evening of Sunday February 15, 1981, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in my Tante Francoise’s home. I was passing through Holland with my father and sister, taking the scenic route from Wisconsin to Athens, Greece. We had arrived on Friday, and were leaving the next morning, Monday. So Sunday night, Tante fixed us a fabulous spread of mixed seafood served over mounds of fried rice. Now, growing up in New Jersey with a Dutch father and Jewish mother, my conception of seafood was limited to things in jars: pickled herring, gifilte fish, and tuna. The only shrimp I had ever seen was a bag of frozen popcorn shrimp that my mom used in the Indonesian fried rice dish that my dad had taught her. As a teen in Wisconsin, I learned about smelt. I need hardly say, none of this prepared me for Europe. Saturday we visited one of the largest open-air markets of Europe, on the Kalverstraat, the street that holds the Boardwalk spot on the Dutch Monopoly board. There I snapped one of my favorite photos ever, in the fish market: a tray of squids, just laying there, no glass or ice or anything, nothing but a sign that read “MOOIE VERSE INKT VIS” — “Very Fresh Ink Fish”. That night my dad took me to his favorite seafood joint, Lucius Visrestaurant. I sampled smoked eel (heavenly), served in safe, bite-size squares, no scarier than a jar of herring. For the entree, I had a tasty Dover sole. But then came Sunday night: “The Mutant Monster Dinner From The Deep”. We crowded around the table in the little kitchen, my dad to my right, and opposite, my young cousins Frederick and Floris. (We called them “Frick & Floris”, which always made me smile.) Tante proudly placed a long platter on the table.
A huge mound of brown rice filled the center. Along its crest, an eel — whole, huge and staring — gazed back at me. I recalled my dad’s stories of his mother, my Oma, bringing live eels home from the market and keeping them in the bathtub until dinner time. Dad said as kids they enjoyed tormenting the live eel. This dead eel was tormenting me. Arranged around the slopes of the mound were a dozen red, spikey, tentacled, armored, pincered beasts from Dante’s Inferno. These too stared at me from bulbous, protuberant eyes. My head swam. At the base of the rice mound, around the perimeter of the platter, were a variety of bivalves, all of which appeared to have vomited a lump of partially digested pulpy flesh. I was completely shocked. My cousins dug in. “Dad — what — what is that? The red thing?” “Prawns! North Sea prawns! The best!” he exclaimed with glee. He grabbed one and quickly dismantled it. I was nauseous. “What — but what — what is a prawn?!” “Prawnsh,” he replied with full mouth. “You know: like shrimp, but bigger. Or like lobshtersh, but schmaller.”
This thing was “like a shrimp, but bigger”? I tell you, these things were at least eight inches long from whiskery feeler to fan tail. I was nearly seventeen years old, but I swear, I had no idea shrimp were crustaceans. I thought they were some grubby little thing, small, fleshy and white. Can I hide behind my Jewish heritage to justify my ignorance? Frick and Floris were sucking the prawn heads clean of their contents, then sticking them on their fingers and playing puppets. I ate rice and tried to breathe through my mouth. My dad cleaned a prawn for me and placed the white tail meat on my plate. “Dip it in the garlic butter here.” I trusted the guy, and we had had a good experience at Lucius, so I held my breath and tried it. My life changed in an instant. Three months later you might have found me at a seaside taverna at Nafplion, casually waving over the waiter, pointing at the mound of exoskeletons on the table and gesturing for another dozen. Within six months I could whip out ” Ένα άλλο δώδεκα γαρίδες παρακαλώ” like a native. And after a year in Greece, I could peel a prawn like nobody’s business. But I never could bring myself to suck out the heads.