Why Virginia B. Wood's first culinary epiphany got her in big trouble.

Lost Austin Memories

Though I didn't grow up here, Austin is certainly where I fell in love with restaurants. My dad's business brought us to Austin a couple of times a year in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and visits to my parents' favorite restaurants were an important part of each trip. They'd lived in Austin when my dad worked multiple jobs while finishing pharmacy school, and eating out was beyond their budget. Daddy loved returning as a successful businessman and member of the State Board of Pharmacy, taking his young family out on the town. Recalling those wonderful restaurant memories, it makes perfect sense to me now that I ended up in Austin, making a living cooking and then writing about food and restaurants.

Some of the things I remember are just fragmented images, such as a visual snapshot of a frosted dish of chocolate ice cream in the shape of a horse's head. (For years after I moved here, I'd ask people where I might have eaten that ice cream and finally, Eddie Wilson said, "Sure, you were at the Hitching Post, it was on Lamar at about 11th.") Other memories are much more detailed: our family at the El Matamoros on I-35 for Tex-Mex, entering under the huge neon Aztec mask and feasting on big puffy tacos, delicate corn tortillas that had been puffed on the comal and filled with spicy picadillo. There was also the regular pilgrimage to the Night Hawk #2. Daddy could look for alumni friends and treat us to the best steak in town followed by thick slices of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate icebox pie.

One summer visit is permanently etched in my memory because it includes my first experience with shrimp cocktail and room service. I was probably nine or 10. My parents were attending a pharmaceutical convention, and we were ensconced in the old Commodore Perry Hotel, then at the corner of Eighth and Brazos. All I remember about the hotel was the huge indoor swimming pool and the formal dining room where I got my first glimpse of a shrimp cocktail being delivered at a nearby table. It was served in an ice cream goblet with plump pink shrimp hooked festively over the edge and a glistening silver bowl of bright red sauce sitting on a bed of shaved ice. To a kid from the desert with no fresh fish experience, it looked terribly exotic. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I asked many questions about it during dinner and was told it was an expensive "grownup" dish I probably wouldn't like. I had to have one.

I'd observed my parents ordering juice and coffee every morning and when I found shrimp cocktail on the room service menu, my plan was clear. The next time we were scheduled to go swimming, I feigned a headache and asked to stay in the room with a book. Against her better judgment, Mother locked me in the room, leaving me with instructions not to open the door to anyone and to have her paged at the pool if I felt like joining them. When they were safely on the elevator, I phoned room service and waited in breathless anticipation. I signed the ticket with a flourish and took possession of my prize in all its cool, glamorous splendor. I've never forgotten that first bite of shrimp, cold and sweet, with the faint fresh aroma of the sea. I savored each one, swirling them languidly in the tangy red sauce before popping them into my mouth. After devouring my guilty treat, I carefully deposited the tray outside the door. I assumed it would disappear as swiftly as the coffee tray did every morning (and the concept of an itemized bill never once entered my inexperienced criminal mind). This oversight proved to be my undoing as the telltale shrimp tails were still outside the door when Mother and my sisters returned from swimming. All hell broke loose. The occasion for my first personal culinary epiphany was the last time my parents ever left me alone in a hotel room.

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