All the Food You Can Eat and Only the Family You Can Stand

Jackie Summers
·8 min read

Family seafood fest began as a way of helping my nephews and nieces get closer to their grandparents. Once a week I’d make the trek to Chinatown. I’d buy shopping bags full of fresh seafood: crabs, mussels, oysters, scallops, shrimp, lobsters, and salmon steaks. We’d converge on my parents’ home in Jamaica, Queens, like hungry seagulls at a clambake, but noisier and less civilized. I’d do all the cooking and we’d feast: eating, drinking, and trashing persona non grata. That’s how the motto of family seafood fest was born: All the food you can eat and only the family you can stand.

The latter part of that maxim was not hyperbole. As a kid I knew which adults made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t articulate. As padrino I’ve chosen not to perpetuate generational trauma by abiding toxic relationships with anyone accidentally connected through blood.

Once, my brother (who I can’t stand) showed up at family seafood fest, empty-handed as usual. I answered the doorbell and when I realized who’d rung it, promptly slammed the door in his face. I ran to the kitchen, grabbed what plastic containers I could find, shoveled copious amounts of seafood into them, and returned to the porch where he waited, befuddled. I opened the door, shoved food into his outstretched arms and slammed the door closed again.

Dad did not approve. Dad was still alive back then.

When I was growing up, Dad didn’t approve of much of what I did. It's a helluva thing for a kid to believe (true or not) that your father just doesn't like you. It's another thing entirely to move beyond your childhood and establish an adult relationship with your parents. The guy who couldn't stand me as a kid became my best friend as an adult. Once we became friends our affection was ebullient and effusive.

My weekly visits to my parents would begin with Dad greeting me at the door and tossing me halfway across the room; a friendly reminder that at 80 years old, his aikido skills were undiminished. We figured out how to argue respectfully. We discovered a mutual love of pool. In my darkest moments I'd call Dad in the middle of the night, not because I thought he’d have some brilliant insight to share, but because I knew he'd jabber on and on until I fell asleep, and all I needed was to get through the night and make it to the next day.

As an adult I never ended a conversation with my father without telling him I loved him. "Me and you, son" was his standard response. Then, one day (I must have been around 30) I ended our weekly call with my standard "Love you, Dad.” "Love you too, son" he replied, much to my surprise.

It ain't easy raising parents.

But there was always seafood. As the grandchild of Caribbean immigrants, devouring the ocean’s bounty was the closest we could come to eating like our ancestors. On the respective islands of Nevis and Barbados, where my grandparents emigrated from, food options revolved around what you could yank off of a tree, pull out of the ground, or gather from the ocean. Outside of a shared genetic tendency towards stubbornness, there were few things we agreed on more than consuming crustaceans. A mutual love for fleshy, briny goodness seemed to bind us all.

Outside of a shared genetic tendency towards stubbornness, there were few things we agreed on more than consuming crustaceans.

Family seafood fest became our quorum. Feeling pugnacious? See you Friday night at Mom and Dad’s. Got “beef?” Settle it over mussels cooked in bottles of Corona with limes. Someone wronged you? Present your arguments over crawfish boil. Running late? Know that trash will be talked about you up until the moment you arrive. Then it’s nothing but love—and freshly shucked oysters. Something about airing out grievances over lobster claws slathered in salted garlic butter and freshly squeezed lemon juice made the process of resolving family drama somewhat less acerbic.

And so it went unabated for years: our weekly celebration of family and life and aquatic deliciousness, until the day we found out Dad had advanced prostate cancer.

“Found out” because he’d actually been diagnosed two years prior, and told no one.

Dad’s condition put a serious crimp in our family tradition. Friday nights once spent cooking, laughing, and drinking, were now spent at his bedside, as we watched our patriarch, this most persistent of men, wither away before our disbelieving eyes.

One of the things that no one tells you about cancer is how metastasis robs your loved ones of their final shreds of dignity as it kills them. Once cancer reaches your lymphatic system, microscopic malignant bits will enter the bloodstream and take up residence in the brain, clouding the mind as it ravages the body. After six months of spending every day in the hospital with Dad, watching him slowly deteriorate, we heard from the doctors what we already knew: it was only a matter of days.

Mom dealt with the news that she was losing the love of her life—her life partner, her husband of 56 years, the father of her five children—the only way she knew how: she went home and fixed Dad his favorite meal.

When we arrived at the hospital the next morning, Dad was awake, but not in a meaningful way. He was upright, his eyes glazed over, his face unresponsive to our greetings. If he could hear us telling him how much we loved him, cancer had stolen his ability to respond. Her face swollen with tears, Mom reached into her bag and retrieved the last meal she’d ever prepare for her husband: deep fried scallops. Still warm, she opened the container and set it in front of him, expecting nothing. Dad sat there, incognizant, oblivious to our presence.

And then, he breathed. A sniff at first, then a deep, intentional inhale. The aroma hit him. His pupils contracted into focus, then awareness. A smile crept across his face, as I watched the light return to my father’s eyes, effervescent as ever.

Dad called our names. He thanked us. He asked some legal questions, all while dunking scallops in hot sauce and scarfing them down like…

Like it was his last meal. He told Mom he loved her, before fading back into oblivion. That was his penultimate moment of lucidity before he died. Three days after feeding my Dad his last meal, I knelt by his bedside, and held his hand until his pulse slowed to a stop.

It ain’t easy burying parents.

Since Dad died, family seafood fest,* which commenced uninterrupted for almost twenty years, has one notable asterisk: the six months we deferred our Friday night tradition to spend time with my father as he slowly lost his life to cancer. The rules of our tradition remain unchanged: while technically all are invited, not all are welcome. There’s a bit less trashing of family these days, as our ire has redirected towards the current state of politics. Fortunately, both seem to go well with soft shell crabs and ginger wine.

I still do all of the cooking, although I never quite mastered Mom’s scallops. It’s a simple enough recipe, and yet the command of seaflesh, deep fried and perfectly crusted golden, still eludes me. It’s possible I’ve developed a mental block around perfecting this recipe inextricably linked with my Dad’s death. Maybe some part of me equates mastering Mom’s fried scallops with letting go. I miss the days when scallops were uncomplicated; just scrumptious, crispy, pulpy, buttery smiles that melted in your mouth.

Now scallops just taste like loss and grief and premature goodbyes.

Most of the family didn’t expect Mom to outlive Dad by 18 years, and counting. At 93, she lives alone in a house that once roared with family, reading books, caring for her two cats, enjoying her independence, and asking nothing from no one, save regular visits from family and the occasional sumptuous repast.

Which brings us to our next asterisk: The zest with which we’ve observed family seafood fest* can be rivaled only by the opulence of our annual holiday observations. As the steward of the family recipes, I assumed culinary responsibility for our fêtes more than two decades ago. Under Mom’s tutelage, I’ve perfected (and daresay, improved) our menu: turkey brined overnight in apple cider with rosemary, thyme, and sage; homemade cornbread stuffing; bourbon-soaked sweet potatoes with crushed walnut-brown sugar topping; three-cheese mac and cheese; habanero-infused cranberry sauce; collard greens with smoked turkey legs; rice and peas; and creamy mashed potatoes.

Banquets fit for royalty I will sorely miss this year.

Part of what makes these moments precious is the knowledge that they are transitory. At some point, there will be a last everything we ever celebrate with Mom, just as our final family seafood fest* with Dad was in his hospice bed.

Our family's food traditions have held us together through the worst of times. Still, with coronavirus infections at an all time high, I’m unwilling to risk the health of my nonagenarian matriarch to maintain our praxis. Food may moor us, but it’s not worth killing ourselves over. With great reluctance, I have concluded the necessity of sacrificing holidays present to extend the possibility of holidays future.

I can take another asterisk. I can’t take losing my Mom.

Originally Appeared on Epicurious