DURING THE EARLY '40s, THE WAR YEARS, I WAS IN LAGUNA BEACH, LEARNING TO COOK.
My husband was in the Marine Corps, stationed nearby, and we had rented a tiny three-bedroom house close to the ocean. During the five years we lived there, every friend we knew from our school days arrived to visit (and often to stay). In order to feed this steady stream, I made casseroles, stews, soups, and big hearty salads with thick, creamy dressings--all good to eat and cheap to make.
I loved those years--cooking and eating with cheery, hungry friends. Every dish was appreciated, and there was no such thing as a leftover. Convenience foods and frozen foods had appeared in the '40s, but they weren't a convenience to me. I couldn't afford them. I didn't even have a refrigerator until the '50s. And I didn't miss it.
Among my great memories of those years are abalone feasts. It wasn't a simple matter to collect abalone; it took strength and skill. My husband and our sturdier friends would dive off the Laguna cliffs, swim underwater and pry the abalone (which were all but welded to the rocks by barnacles) loose with tire irons. When a dozen or more had been collected, we would head home. Getting them out of the shell was easy; pounding to tenderize them was tedious, but we all took turns. The steaks were fried a few seconds on each side and served with melted butter and lemon, stacks of thick sliced bread and a mountain of Romaine lettuce with garlic dressing.
The abalone have all but disappeared from Southern California, but in those days an abalone dinner was to us what a clambake is to Down Easters.
Grunion hunting, another great memory, was a very different experience--wildly suspenseful and exciting. Grunion, small (about five inches long) silvery fish, belong to the smelt family. They spawn during the summer above high tide, by the light of the full moon. Grunion runs are accurately predicted by the Fish & Game Department, but no one knows on which stretch of beach they will choose to spawn; it could be Santa Monica or San Juan Capistrano.
On the appointed night we would congregate on the main beach in Laguna at about 10, along with lots of other grunion enthusiasts. There were groups of us spread along the beach, sitting around fires while the full moon made a path across the water. We watched and waited while we talked about the last grunion run. We retold many times the tale of the Marines, a half dozen of them from the Midwest in dress blues, who saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. There were grunion, too, and the Marines became so excited they got soaking wet trying to catch the elusive little fish.
The popular alcoholic beverage in those days was Southern Comfort and beer, and it was in ample supply at all grunion runs. If we were lucky, and in the right spot, the magic moment would arrive around midnight and someone would yell "here they come!" It was the most unbelievable sight of shining, silvery fish wiggling on the sand. We would grab pails and head into the surf, facing the beach knee-deep in water, so we could catch the grunion as they were swept past us, back into the tides. They would only be on the beach for seconds, but for several hours wave after wave would bring more.
Gazing down the beach when the grunion are running heavily, it looks as though bits of stars are strewn on the sand. It is illegal to use nets to catch them; catching by hand is the only permissible method. It was almost dawn when we would carry our buckets home. We fixed the grunion simply, frying them quickly in sizzling bacon fat and serving them with scrambled eggs and buttered toast.
Those abalone and grunion days are a world away at this moment. And the Laguna Beach abalone are almost extinct. But the grunion are still dancing on the sands late on summer nights. And if my friends are no longer as young or as hungry as they once were, the Laguna Beach recipes still appear often on my table, and there are still no leftovers.
When I first made the Laguna Beach Shrimp Curry, I used Campbell's cream of tomato soup for the sauce. A neighbor taught me how to make the coconut-milk sauce, which seemed more mellow with the shrimp, and it is nice to have the toasted coconut for an accompanying condiment. In those days around the beach towns, shrimp was considered an economy food; they were as cheap as calamari is today.
LAGUNA BEACH SHRIMP CURRY
1 cup water
1 cup milk
2 cups unsweetened grated coconut
5 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
1/4 cup flour
2 cups warm chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 pounds cooked shrimp, shelled and deveined
6 cups cooked long-grain white rice
Heat water and milk until bubbles form ring around edge of pan. Remove from heat and stir in coconut. Let steep 1 hour.
Drain, squeezing coconut milk from coconut. Reserve coconut milk and coconut. Spread 1 cup coconut on baking sheet and toast under broiler or at 350 degrees until lightly golden. Set aside.