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Butter and Belonging at Red Lobster

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My immigrant Japanese family came to America and fell in love with cheap steaks, sausage, corned beef and cabbage, lasagna and rye bread. But they drew a deep line at American seafood. In New York State in the '70s and '80s, this meant shrimp doused in opaque sauces, dry fillets armored in cracker crumbs, frozen clam strips without their bellies, and breaded sticks and patties that pointedly drew one's imagination as far away from the shape of a fish as possible. The illustration of a fisherman on the package was the only indicator that these headless, finless forms hadn't been cut from a never-ending sheet of flaky, white meat.

As an adolescent, I kept to myself that the occasional frozen fish stick offered by a friend in the school cafeteria was a crisp, steamy vehicle for furtive scoops of tartar sauce. We were Japanese and the threshold of our house, like an embassy's, was a cultural and aesthetic border past which no bland, boneless fillets would pass. There, my grandfather would extend his chopsticks to pluck the white eye from a fish's simmered profile, turn it over and grin as I went for the other one. I was born an American but eating the eye and poking around the gills for tender, oily flesh was a pledge of at least culinary allegiance to my grandparents' birthplace and a middle finger to classmates and teachers who frequently shared their (even then dated) disgust with sushi and whole fish. Some of my first "go back where you came from" taunts came in tandem with, "your house smells like fish." It did. We charred perch on a front porch hibachi.

But some evenings, as my grandfather and I transitioned from reruns of The Rockford Files to ranting at the news, the slow-motion footage of a prawn splashing into butter and parsley in a Red Lobster commercial moved us. Sometimes we said nothing as the voice-over heralded the arrival of Lobster Fest. Reclined with a glass of Cutty Sark, his face betrayed little, even as the screen lit with tracking shots of batter-fried shrimp and butter pouring into split lobster tails like molten gold. Sometimes he grunted a long, "heh-eh," the Japanese equivalent of "well, would you look at that."

American seafood had only infiltrated our home in theory since our town didn't have a Red Lobster. That sort of upscale establishment was safely hours away.

My grandfather was, in some ways, what many would consider a model immigrant. He came with my grandmother to be near his naturalized daughter and American-born grandchildren. He worked hard on the line at a plastic factory and on endless home repairs, and kept to himself, never getting into trouble with the law and exerting no cultural influence outside our home. Maybe because of his bitterness over his experiences in the Japanese army during World War II, which he deemed baka (stupid), maybe because of a rift with the family that sent him to the army in the first place, he never returned to Japan, staying back when the rest of our family visited yearly. But he never became a U.S. citizen, either. He was, more or less, a man without a country.

A green card holder till he died in his early 60s, he never assimilated beyond the aforementioned meaty additions to his diet and painting some very western landscapes in his spare time. He knew, too, that he wasn't necessarily wanted here, either. He was a Japanese immigrant factory worker at a time when competition with Japanese manufacturers led to the racist "economic anxiety" that inspired white autoworkers to beat Chinese American Vincent Chin to death in Detroit. He made no close friends and when he got a raise or survived a round of layoffs, he made us swear not to tell anyone.

His English was functional, if choppy and heavily accented, and his vocabulary was hampered by conversations solely with my brother and I (unless you count railing in two languages at the nightly news). So when he had to visit the Social Security office in person to fill out papers, he needed help. For someone so proud of his self-sufficiency, it must have been miserable. My bilingual mother was the natural choice to accompany him on the long drive upstate but he asked me, who could barely baby talk in Japanese. Mind you, he never actually asked for my help or acknowledged the possibility he needed it. Instead, he invited me on a trip to a town with a Red Lobster.

We drove hours under white sky past muddy roadsides and bare trees to what I remember as a solid block of concrete, the Social Security office. There, after a long wait with a numbered ticket in hand, we sat in plastic chairs while a man in a tan suit vest flipped through my grandfather's forms. The man spoke quickly in government jargon that I tried with my 12-year-old brain to break down and understand myself before repeating it slowly and in simpler terms to my grandfather.

I looked at the man's olive skin and dark, curly hair, and wondered how far back his family went in the states. I wondered if his grandparents spoke English and if he ever had to hold his tongue as someone huffed and scolded them for not understanding in front of him, if he could imagine what that felt like for them. I wanted to tell him how smart my grandfather was, how he'd fixed airplanes in mid-flight, taught himself to oil paint and read shelves of tissue-paged books in Japanese. I wanted to shame him until he wept.

Under the best circumstances (a good report card, the successful repair of a water pipe), my grandfather was taciturn. I dreaded what would surely be a grim, silent drive home, shifting on the vinyl seats in my down jacket. But as soon as he started the car, he began listing what we might order. We were exiting the parking lot of the America that did not want us and heading for the one promised in all those Red Lobster commercials, the America that invited us to pull up a chair and eat until we could eat no more.

It would have to be take-out, given the late hour and dark road ahead. I agreed, happy to shift gears and obsess about whether there would be snow crab legs and if ordering popcorn shrimp meant skipping scampi. Before long we were flipping the laminated pages of a menu, struggling to choose between stuffed and boiled lobster as servers circled the dining room with plates we hadn't even seen in the commercials. The shrimp, it turned out, was indeed endless.

Our car was transformed into a fragrant sauna of garlic butter and fried shrimp. We bathed in the smell, glancing at the back seat, where we'd secured the stacked foil containers in tied plastic bags, maybe 10 in all. Aside from being more than we could afford, it was just too much food. But that was the point, right? Once home, the American-style bounty overflowed from the dinner table to the kitchen counters, leaving barely enough room for our plates. It was salty and buttery, the dishes nearly uniform in flavor but for the starring scallops or sole — it was bliss. We dredged garlic bread through parsley-flecked sauces and listened as we bit into the fried shrimp to hear the loud crunch we'd been imagining for so long. The feast didn't end in conversion to American seafood, which was about as likely as us dissecting our visit to Social Security. But we ate until we were past full and congratulated ourselves on the quest fulfilled, luxuriating in the plenty, in the butter.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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