Thanks Forrest. Now I miss seafood.

Shrimp Boat photograph by photographer Kim Slonaker on
photo credit: Kim Slonaker

I’m reading Forrest Gump. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out in 1994, I’ve never read the book, and I haven’t gotten anywhere near the part where Bubba tells Forrest about shrimp:

“Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.” – Bubba in Forrest Gump (the movie)

In fact, I have no idea if that scene even happens in the book [ed. note: it does not], but just being on the page with Forrest, and hearing his voice, and seeing the name Bubba in chapter 3, I remember the movie. And now I’m thinking about seafood. I’m thinking about the shrimp boats of my Georgia childhood, and the crab traps baited with raw chicken, and the fishing poles sticking up from our boat’s white rod holders, and the cast nets that you held the weighted skirt of in your teeth while you got your hands in the right position to spin the white web out over the water. I’m thinking about seagulls squawking and dolphins chittering behind shrimpers, waiting for them to pull their nets in, about the sound of blue crab legs scuttling in the bottom of a white plastic compound bucket, about that dock under a bridge on Wilmington Island where Mom would buy shrimp fresh off the boat.

But mostly I’m thinking about oyster roasts and crab boils and red hot skillets for blackening Dad’s caught-today grouper, and fresh fish on the menu at riverside restaurants, and watching Mom drop blue crabs into a huge pot of boiling water, and then pulling them out as hot and red as a bad sunburn.

My husband and I have moved around a lot, sometimes near the ocean, and sometimes not. We wintered in Maine one year and took full advantage of the lobster fishery there. I remember lobster rolls from a roadside stand on our way to somewhere;  I don’t remember where. I only remember seeing the stand under a bridge. The light was beautiful that day – slanted and yellow warm against a crisp winter sky. And I remember lobster chowder at a shack on a rocky jetty that jutted into a wild January sea. Angry icy waves crashed against jagged stone, and we sipped steaming hot chocolate and slurped thick lobster stew as wind and water raged outside.

We weren’t so lucky in Minnesota, though. Minnesota is the farthest from ocean I have ever lived, and it wasn’t until we planted ourselves there that I fully appreciated what in meant to be landlocked. We wanted oysters one night, and I drove to every grocery store in a five mile radius hunting for them. I ended up at the fancy market, the expensive one – Byerly’s – because that was the only place that carried them. When I finally spied oysters on ice at the seafood counter, I wanted to buy – how many? I only knew them by the bucketful – and the oysters were a dollar apiece. I stood there a full minute in sticker shock before I finally bought the six individuals they had. My husband and I got three oysters each. Growing up we had cooked piles of them, mountains of them, filled five gallon buckets with hot oysters and tossed them in a steaming ridge along 6-foot newspaper-covered tables, over and over again. Neighbors stood around those tables with their oyster knives, shucking and slurping and dashing with tabasco, tossing oyster carapaces like peanut shells. Piles of them. And in my little bag in Minnesota, I had six.

But there, in the middle of the country, in the cold heart of winter, more than 1000 miles from the nearest brackish water, eating those oysters was like eating slippery morsels of almost-solid ocean: saline, lusty, and warm.

They weren’t the best oysters on earth, nor is any of the seafood we can get where we live in Virginia, so we don’t eat it often. By the time marine fare makes it through the hills, it is no longer vibrant. It has lost its vitality. We have no idea where it came from, who caught it, how many times it has been frozen. The only fish we can afford are sad and soulless. They taste like silt from the farms they were raised in, or are dyed to look more vital, more alive.

I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten shrimp every way that Bubba describes it, and shrimp isn’t even my favorite seafood. In fact, it’s probably the seafood I care least about. I’d rather have blackened grouper that my dad caught offshore, salty and sunburned for his efforts, standing over hot coals at the end of the day, waiting for the cast iron to glow before he throws in those succulent filets coated in butter and cajun spice to sizzle and sear. Or I’d love some crab-stuffed flounder, or crab au gratin made from blue crabs my brother and I caught in our creek. Or, Mahi-Mahi Dad caught on vacation in the Florida Keys, or spiny lobsters we tickled out of crevices during lobster season down there.

But now that we live in the mountains in Virginia, even though they’re not my favorite, even though they aren’t grouper, or Mahi, or lobster, or blue crab, I’d take a pile of shrimp. Or even just three apiece, if they’re fresh.

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom book cover on Forrest Gump: A novel by Winston Groom. Six foot six, 242 pounds, and possessed of a scant IQ of 70, Forrest Gump is the lovable, surprisingly savvy hero of this classic comic tale. His early life may seem inauspicious, but when the University of Alabama’s football team drafts Forrest and makes him a star, it sets him on an unbelievable path that will transform him from Vietnam hero to world-class Ping-Pong player, from wrestler to entrepreneur. With a voice all his own, Forrest is telling all in a madcap romp through three decades of American history. (From the paperback blurb)

Resources for taking a geography-based literary tour of the US

I am devouring the final pages of my third Alaska novel and will soon be moving south to Arizona, which means I am spending a lot of time on the couch, cup of coffee by my side, feet propped on the table and laptop on my lap, browsing bookish websites. Sleuthing titles from each state has already become one of my favorite pastimes. I love sorting through book lists, reading synopses, receiving recommendations, organizing titles and authors, getting that tingly “Oooh, I have to read that one!” feeling, and most importantly, lining up my book queue so that I always know what I’m going to read next.

I’ve only selected books for three states so far (Alabama, Alaska, and Arizona) because I’m winging this as I go. My process has been to assemble the next state’s book list when I begin reading the final pick of my current state. I start with a call for recommendations from you and from Twitter. I enter your recommendations into my spreadsheet (yes, a spreadsheet of book titles. How geeky can you get, right? I know you want to see it though. I’ll give you a taste in a minute.) and then start running through my list of geographic-reading resources:

1. LitMap Project

Screnshot of LitMap Project North America map on
Screnshot of LitMap Project North America map

I heard about LitMap on one of the early episodes of the BookRiot podcast and put it in my pocket for my reading road trip. Though the screenshot above only shows North America, on the LitMap Project website you can search locations all over the world. And even better? You can submit titles too. So if you know books set in specific states, please submit titles. I think this is a really cool idea and would love to see it get lots of action. Navigating the map took a little getting used to at first, but I think that might have more to do with my mouse than the website.  I have registered and will be litmapping all of my reads for this project. (And I just saw that I am in the Litmappers Hall of Fame! Awesome.)

2. Business Insider’s map of the Most Famous Books Set in Every State

Most Famous Book Set in Every State from Business Insider on
Most Famous Book Set in Every State (credit: Business Insider)

I wrote about this map in my introductory post about the project, It’s official: I am reading America, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about it here. I won’t necessarily be reading all the books from this map, but it gives me a good jumping off point and reminds me not just of titles I love, but titles that have long been on my TBR list and I will now get to thanks to this project.

3. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Maps

After reading the Science paper linking literary fiction and empathy, I decided I want to read literary award winners set in various states around the US. When I began my reading project I couldn’t find maps of Pulitzer and National Book Award winners based on setting. So I made them. I wrote down every title from the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction list, plus the finalists, read synopses of all the works, and marked the titles that were set in a particular state. I did the same with the National Book Award list. Now these maps serve as a quick reference when I research a new state.

Map of Pulitzer winners and finalists set in each US state on
Pulitzer Prize fiction winners and finalists set in specific US states
Map of National Book Award Fiction Winners set in each US state on
National Book Award fiction winners set in specific US states

4. TripFiction

TripFiction: see a location through an author’s eyes is a website where you can search by location to find books set in a particular area. The site includes reviews for each book and offers opportunities for readers (that’s you!) to submit titles and reviews.

5. USA Literary Map

Hand-lettered literary map of USA available at The Literary Gift Company
photo source: The Literary Gift Company

I adore this hand-lettered literary map designed by Geoff Sawers and Bridget Hannigan, and when I’m stuck, I often refer to it for author names. The map is available at The Literary Gift Company, along with close-up shots of regions of the US that are difficult to see on the full map.

6. Authors of color from each US state

Reading diversely – reading the perspectives of men, women, white authors, black authors, Native American authors, Hispanic authors – is a major component of my Andrea Reads America project. Finding authors of color who hail from each state and who set their work in that state has proven challenging. I sent out a plea – Authors of color from each US state: will you help me fill in the gaps? – and was thrilled by the response from readers. The result is a photo gallery of authors from each state, titles they set in their home state, and a state-by-state list of those titles. If you are looking to diversify your reading life, this is a great place to start.

7. The Readers podcast

On The Readers episode 85, recorded in October 2013, hosts Simon (UK) and Thomas (USA) each chose and described 10 (or 11) books that represented the different regions of their respective countries. I had already started my US tour in Alabama, and I think I may have squealed when I heard the show’s topic.  I scribbled down most of the titles Thomas suggested for various regions of our country. It’s a great list by a thoughtful reader, and Simon has me wanting to take a British tour as well.  Maybe when my current project is done, I’ll hop across the pond.

8. Goodreads

Thank heavens for Goodreads lists, and for reviewers who tag books based on geographic setting. I found many of my Alaska titles on the Goodreads Best Books on Alaska list. I’m still learning how to navigate Goodreads (e.g. I don’t know how to tag books), but I have a feeling I’ll be an expert by the time this is all over.

9. Google search

After I’ve gone through steps 1 through 8, I run a basic google search. For Alabama, I searched “books set in Alabama by Alabama authors” and found this great list, 10 favorite novels by Alabama authors set in Alabama. For Arizona, I found an exhaustive list, Reading Arizona: The Literary Landscape, which even includes the specific region in Arizona the book is set in.

The Spreadsheet

It did not take long before I realized I had some serious data management issues when all I was doing was scribbling notes in my yellow composition book. When recommendations started pouring in as comments on blog posts, I decided to set up a spreadsheet to organize titles. As I run through the resources above, and when you all are so kind as to give me recommendations, I enter the information in my spreadsheet:

Andrea Reads America: screenshot of title and author spreadsheet, organized by state on
Andrea Reads America: screenshot of title and author spreadsheet, organized by state

Since part of my project is to read men, women, and non-Caucasian authors, I often have to dig deep to find a minority author to flesh out my list (although in Arizona I’ve got several Native American authors to choose from – very exciting). I mark the titles I am most excited to explore based on recommendations, book blurbs, and literary awards, then go through my short list to make sure all three authorships are represented. Twice my short list was comprised of three women (an exciting problem), and so I went back in and adjusted til my list of three was well rounded.

Then? I read.

Reading: good times.