The Shrimp Dinner that'sbeen an All Saints’ tradition at Holy Communion is shepherded and cooked by a crew of boil experts who’ve earned their stripes - and a few nicknames too - for the efficiency of their process and bonds of friendship.
Much of the story persists in a trail of emails. Some of them, five and ten years old.
“Here’s the debriefing from 2010,” says Richard Hollis, pulling up an email from the dank archives of his computer. “'Looking forward to improving the performance of the corn,’ That’s from Matt Prince,” Hollis says, chuckling as he reads through the notes.
“There’s scads of emails alone on getting the right burners,” Hollis says.
“In 2010, we had a sold-out crowd, and the CJ2000 burner came on line,” he says approvingly.
CJ stands for Cajun Jet, a propane jet burner that so improved the efficiency that there are now two running all day - plus a spare - behind the church kitchen where all cooking is done.
Anyone in the cadre of shrimp cookers at Holy Communion knows that Ron Ayotte, aka “the quartermaster” gets credit for improving the processes for this shrimp boil, which through the years, has run in every kind of weather, including cold, drenching rain.
The CJ200 was just part of it. Ayotte also devised a system to get the melted ice off the cooling shrimp by building draining racks to fit the bottom of the ice chests and draining the water off at an angle so the shrimp never sit in water.
“He wants things right,” said Matt Prince, who took over running the show at least eight years ago. Through it all, the nicknames have persisted. There’s the Shrimp Boss (Kendall Visinsky); Shrimp Master (Hollis); Head Shrimp Boy (Prince); Thaw Boy 1, aka Old Bay, (Mott Ford); Thaw Boy 2 (Shawn McGhee); Cut Man (Tom Cowens); and Deckhand (Davis McGhee).
“It might be an all-male cooking crew, but Visinsky is the boss,” Prince says.
Each ingredient is cooked and cooled separately. That means there are separate ice chests for corn, potatoes, sausage and shrimp. (One year, the potatoes were smashed because the corn was poured on top to cool. It hasn’t happened again.)
The spice is ordered from a specialty company in south Louisiana. The specific order, year after year, has given Holy Communion a reputation the crew learned one year, when the order was late arriving.
“It turns out, they couldn’t get exactly what we wanted in advance so they waited until they could and made arrangements to FedEx to us,” Prince says. “They know we don’t want any deviation.”
The equipment, including enormous boiling pots, is stored at a warehouse. The crew wears white rubber shrimp boot, except the Shrimp Boss. She wears red. At noon, the members break to share steak sandwiches from the Belmont Grill.
It’s hard to know exactly how old the All Saints’ Shrimp Dinner really is. Barbara Wilson suspects it’s well over 30 years old.
Hollis, who learned to cook shrimp and crawfish from his mother’s kin in South Louisiana, remembers coming to his first Shrimp Dinner in the Blaisdell dining room. He was handed a paper plate of tasteless, little shrimp, steamed the day before at Seessel’s.
“I said, ‘What if you give me the same amount of money you’ve been spending and we see what we can do in the way of cooking shrimp?’
“Brack and Leigh Carter and my wife, Jeanne, helped with the cooking. For years, Jeanne helped with the serving. Back in those days, we were cooking 50 pounds of shrimp. Now, they’re at 250,” Hollis says.
“Volunteers would serve the shrimp. Sometime later, we said, ‘Let’s put baskets on the tables and tell them we would like them to put tips in the baskets to help the children going on the pilgrimage,’” he said.
The proceeds have been as high as $4,100.
The work begins on Saturday with the thaw boys hacking up the 5-pound blocks of enormous, frozen shrimp.
All the vegetables, including onions and garlic, are chopped by hand. The corn is purchased fresh (a process also honed by trial and error) from the Restaurant Depot on Summer.
“You can’t have good corn if it’s frozen,” Prince said. “I figured that out by calling someone I know in Louisiana who does this for a living.
“Starting about 10 years ago, we started keeping records,” (Prince’s spreadsheets on the dinner are meticulous) “of how much spice, how long they cooked, etcetera. It gets tweaked every year,” he said.
“But the shrimp are the showpiece. If you get that wrong, no one cares about sausage, potatoes and corn.
“We cook the shrimp in 25-pound increments. The beauty of that is we can oomph up next batch if it needs more spice,” he says with a knowing nod.
When it’s over, the crew with their frat-boy nicknames, mingles for a while with the guests before taking a seat together to watch the crowd enjoy the evening.