Apr 14, 2014

Tony's Seafood Market

Now the seafood market is a different story. The one Mark likes is called Tony's, it's in North Baton Rouge, and it's more upscale than our little tiny local one in Port Allen. North Baton Rouge has a bad reputation for being the city's ghetto. A lot of poverty and gang related violence exists there, and it is one of the more interesting parts of town. From hand-painted shop signs -"Same day car wash, shiney as a diamond"-, to threatening graffitti on concrete walls - "ShawnRee Daquan Williams is a Dead WHORE"-, to gas stations offering things like "hot tamales" and "crawfish pies" for a couple of bucks, it is like a whole part of town is wearing its heart on its sleeve, and ticking to the sounds of a different clock altogether.

[An alien such as myself can only imagine the codes, modes and rules governing a place like this, and no matter how hard I try I will always and forever be on the periphery of its experience. That's why when passing through I make a conscious effort to keep my thoughts quiet, and my senses and heart open. This is what I ask you, reader, to do too when going through my stories. Let's accept that we are standing on a massive structure made of giant hoops placed inside one another. These are the hoops of experience, and each place in the world has a structure like that. We have landed on the American structure, which encloses within it the Southern experience, which encloses the Louisiana experience, which encloses the Baton Rouge experience and so on and so forth. As we hop from the periphery closer to the centre with each day, hoop to hoop, lets keep an open heart and an open mind. Now back to the story.]

Of course we never venture deep into the ghetto, but sometimes we pass by some run down areas to get someplace else. Mark says that you can tell a neigbourhood is poor if it has a pawn shop, a rim shop, and a fast cheque cashing facility. I'm not sure, but I guess Tony's seafood market is somewhere on the perimeter of one such area. It's a very popular place, so people drive from all over to get their seafood there. They've got a security officer in the parking lot, because of all the cars and the traffic in there. 

Once you walk in the smell of seafood hits you, and you're overwhelmed by the amount of people in this large open plan store. It's a smell of sea, but not the kind I'm used to, a smell not as salty but rather more ripe and muddy. There are two sections: the raw section and the cooked section. The raw section is a long line of window freezers full of crawfish, catfish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that you can buy by the pound. Some of the animals are still alive, and under the human chatter and bustle you can almost hear their exoskeletons clicking as they move around slowly, cramped and frozen, clashing claws. I am struck by the diversity of beasts and people, probably for the first time since being in Baton Rouge, hunger and love of seafood uniting people of all backgrounds and colours. We join the long queue at the cooked section because we're super hungry, and I'm trying to catch a glimpse of what's on offer today. The guy in front of us is Mexican and he's talking on the phone, and suddenly my brain is seized by a strange homely but at the same time unfamiliar feeling, and I decide that Tony's seafood market is "where it's at". Across from me a black mother is holding a funny-looking but cute child of around two, his sandy-coloured curly hair nebulously framing his toffee-coloured face. He is wearing a white shirt with a green bowtie, and khaki shorts with brown leather moccasins, a rather serious attire for a two year old boy. He is waving hello at the people in the queue with a slightly confused look on his face. A boy, clinging on his mum's leg, waves back. 

"Whatcha getting honey?", the lady behind the counter asks me as I throw a panicked look at the peculiar food selection in front of me. I try to ask Mark what everything is but he's busy salivating and working his fast mind up to bursting excitement. I see the "familiar" etouffee, jambalaya, gumbo, fried catfish, but then my eye catches an intriguing mix of rice, shrimp, sausage, okra and a mysterious sauce, which might sound disgusting but right then I swear it looked divine. Mark's indecisive so we end up over-ordering as usual, and I'm slightly frustrated because I know I will end up eating everything cause it's delicious, with the risk of becoming what almost everyone else looked like in the store: LARGE. In fact it wasn't almost everyone, it was everyone apart from me, and I must say I never felt more embarrassed or apologetic about my size than I was that day in the store. I guess if we somehow transported Tony's seafood market back to Renaissance Europe, Botticelli or Michelangelo would have pushed me aside in disgust, in their rush to get to the fat lady at the front of the queue eyeing a great big hamburger steak.

"What sides you want, honey?" "I'll get the mac n' cheese, potato salad and red beans", please. -"Can we get a medium crab soup too?", Mark adds. "And cornbread".

At the till our orders get jumbled up with the Mexican man's order, who is still on his phone chatting away. While they clear that up I take a look at the massively long drinks fridge, and pick out a chocolate drink, which reminds me so much of the galataki we used to drink every evening with dinner at home. 

Mark insists we get some boiled shrimp. "But babe, we got all this food!!" Once again, we join the line, Mark thinking about how much shrimp he's going to get, me thinking I need to learn how to peel shrimp. The guy behind us in baggy jeans and a baggy white t-shirt, who must have been around our age, is looking at the shrimp and shaking his head, his neat braids flying around his head, whipping the air: "Yo, they got the head on, man, thas fucked up, they used to sell em without the head man, thas fucked up. You can tell I ain't been here in a minute". Mark said something in agreement and then ordered a pound of shrimp, watching the lady scooping up the boiled animals -legs, tentacles, beady eyes and all- and throwing them in a paper bag. 

On our way to the second till to pay and finally get out, Mark grabbed a bag of cracklins. "No way", I say irritated, "you are NOT getting cracklins". I snatch them from his hand and put them back.

Stepping outside in the parking lot chaos, I ask Mark what the guy meant about the shrimp being sold with the head. "They used to sell them without the head. Now they leave the head on so that they weigh more, and you pay more for less quantity. Times have changed".

I look at the plastic bags we're holding and admire in disgust the amount of food we just bought. Suddenly I glimpse a little bag of cracklins wedged between a drinks can and the shrimp.  Mark glances at me sideways with a cheeky smile. I roll my eyes and whistle through my teeth: "These damn Louisianians..."

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