Originally published Jan. 17, 2014
By Nancy Leson, former Taste writer
THIS WEEK, my family will pause to remember and celebrate the great work and good life of Martin Luther King Jr. But there’s another birthday celebration that causes me to pause and reflect: my own.
As the first of four children born in five years to a mom who got a teenage start on motherhood — and a divorce by the time I turned 6 — I don’t recall much of a fuss being made when I was a kid. For one thing, we were perpetually broke. For another, my birthday came soon after the Christmakah season.
Worse, my personal holiday was a double whammy for my hard-workin’ mommy: My sister Sherry arrived 11 days shy of my first birthday.
Unlike the summertime extravaganzas my overprivileged kid came to expect — rent the local pool for a cast of kiddie characters, backyard barbecues and ice cream cake for 50! — only one celebration stands out to Sherry and me as a (loosely defined) birthday bash: “Lenny’s Hotdogs,” she said when I called to double-check my middle-aged memory bank.
Lenny’s, mind you, was no Chuck E. Cheese’s. Not that I’d want it to be: The day my kid stopped getting invited to those Cheese-y birthday celebrations — kindergarten precursors to a trip to Gamblers Anonymous — was a celebration indeed.
Lenny Kravitz was a Philadelphia fast-food entrepreneur whose own hardworking mother, Ida, supported a family of 13 with a hot-dog business that began with a South Philly pushcart and ended — for us, anyway — after we moved off Castor Avenue, location of the hot-dogs-and-party-hats event seared into our collective brains.
By the time we were in junior high, we were old and “rich” enough (party-hat tip to our stepfather, Howard) to celebrate our birthday in style: at the Woodbine Inn across the bridge in Jersey, later popular as a 1980s disco haunt.
Our tweenage parties included one best-friend invite each, plus an opportunity to indulge in one of life’s greatest luxuries: all-you-can-eat shrimp.
Sherry ordered hers “butterflied,” deep-fried and served in a basket. I opted for the chilled peel-your-own version arrayed in a big wooden bowl around a cup of cocktail sauce, double-dipping with our sister Jill while (shhhh!) sneaking in an all-you-can-eat twofer.
Speaking of double-dipping, shrimpy celebrations are a year-round treat in my house now, and few shrimp recipes are easier to prepare than my take on the Spanish classic gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic).
Buy the highest quality shrimp you can afford; feel free to toy with the proportions of garlic, parsley and pepper flakes; and don’t be shy with the olive oil. Served tableside in a cast-iron skillet with a crusty loaf of bread, it’s a party in your mouth.
Nancy’s Party-on Garlic Shrimp
Serves 3 as an entree, 6 as an appetizer
1½ pounds large shrimp in their shells
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons dried red pepper flakes
½ cup Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
1. Peel, clean and devein the shrimp, and pat them dry.
2. In a large, cast-iron pan (or other heavy skillet), heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes, stir until fragrant, then add the shrimp, turning until cooked just through (about a minute or two on each side). Stir in the parsley, salt to taste and serve immediately with crusty bread for dipping.