Myths of the Sisterhood (Part 1)

It was two years ago that I did my first stint as sous-chef at Villa Marguerita – the vacation home on the Rhode Island coast belonging to the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.  They work hard in their various ministries – at schools, hospitals, and other non-profits – and then come here for some R&R.

Many people have a view of “women religious” as stern women in habits.  That was my image from Catholic elementary school, and when I talk to others about my week here cooking for these sisters I find that a lot of people still have that image.  Most people have never thought of Sisters not dressed in habits, let alone sunning on a beach.

When I was here two years ago, I had a funny conversation with my sister Liz that brings home this point.  Liz has no bones about speaking her mind nor about verbalizing the questions others only think of but are too scared to ask.  The conversation went like this:

Liz (in a whisper – even though we’re on the phone): Do they drink?

Me (with a slight giggle): Yes.

Liz: Do they get drunk?

Me: Noooo.

Liz: Well, how much do they drink?

Me (matter-of-factly): A beer or two with dinner.

Liz (incredulously): They drink beer?!

Me (laughing): Some of them.  Some have wine, or a mixed drink.

Liz: Like what kinds of alcohol do they have?

I named off some of things that had graced the drinks cart at dinner.  And with that, banished the myth that Sisters are stern, mean women who never relax with a drink:)

Villa Marguerita

The Mother’s Day Shrimp

There is definitely some sort of brain growth that happens – almost palpably – when you’re learning new things.  I don’t mean things you find in books – though perhaps you can feel it there as well.  No, I mean things that you experience that you’ve never experienced before.  And the great thing is that you have the opportunity to learn something new nearly every day if you just keep your eyes open for it.  Such was my experience on Sunday with shrimp.

On Mother’s Day, my father and his best friend prepare a meal for their wives.  Gary picks out the recipes and serves as head chef.  Dad and us kids are sous-chefs.  I’m usually amenable to preparing whatever needs doing.  As a child helping mom prepare for holiday meals, however, I steered away from tasks that involved food I didn’t like to eat.  Namely, mayonnaise and mustard.  Deviled eggs?  Nope – someone else can do that.  Stuffed mushrooms?  Nope.  Shrimp would have also fallen into this category.  I have only come to like it in the last five years.  And that was only because the guy I was seeing cooked it for me and, not knowing him too well, I felt bad telling him I didn’t like it.  So I tried it, figuring how bad could something be that was cooked in butter and garlic?  I’m half Italian, after all.  Now, shrimp scampi holds a special place in my heart (though they guy doesn’t!).

So when dad’s friend Gary asked me if I’d peel shrimp, I hesitated for a moment.  The only thing I’d ever had to do in the way of preparing the little guys was taking off the tails in order to pop them into my mouth.  These ones had legs!  But I’m more cognizant now of the fact that a lot of what I eat once had legs (or once was a leg) and I think it’s good to know what your food goes through from farm to table (or from water to table in this case).  So Gary showed me how to peel them – which I must admit is much easier than peeling garlic.

Once I was done with that, the next line in the recipe instructed you in deveining the shrimp.  I’d heard of this, but never done it.  Gary came over and together we figured out how to do it – or so we thought.  But our first two shrimp didn’t appear to have their “vein.”  Family members debated as to if the shrimp had already been deveined (which I didn’t think was the case since it seemed silly to do it without peeling the little guys first).   Our third one finally showed us what it had – and as an Anatomy instructor I had a feeling it wasn’t a vein.   Human anatomy was my favorite course (no pun intended).  And I could definitely identify the veins of any dead animal – human or otherwise.  I commanded my brother who was sitting at the family computer to google “deveining shrimp.”  He one-upped me and found a you tube video.

The instructor from Epicurious told us, first of all, that deveining wasn’t necessary but that the shrimp sure looked prettier peeled open like that.  She confirmed that my technique of making a shallow groove along their backs and peeling it open was indeed correct.  Then, she explained that what I pulled out was not a vein at all, but their digestive tract.  Ha!  I knew it!  I figured our first two shrimp had done me the favor of clearing their digestive tracts prior to being pulled from the ocean.  I went back to the process of deveining our future meal, carefully pulling out digestive tracts filled with – well, I knew, but no need to dwell on it.

After coating the shrimp in oil, tossing them in the rub my sister prepared, and skewering them, I thanked Gary for expanding my culinary horizons.  He gave a jolly laugh and went to find the ginger root my father needed to make his recipe.  “What the hell is this?!” my father, definitely not the culinary expert, asked upon seeing the stalk of ginger.  I guess I didn’t get my appreciation for learning new things from him:)