Monthly Archives: August 2017

Collette

Last night my husband showed me a local Beaumont news story about a woman died in my hometown as she tried to stay afloat in the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey. The little girl was rescued alive, but the mother was unresponsive. I shook my head. The next morning, I saw a post in the Facebook group for my high school senior class about the tragedy. Photos appeared in the comments and that’s when I fell apart: police had identified the woman who died as my friend Collette.

Articles about her death were published all over the country. The LA Times called her death “a true testament to a mother’s will.” The NY Times headlined her as “Drowning Mama.” I don’t mention these descriptions because they’re wrong, they’re all true, but because it felt strange to read about someone I knew described as a near-anonymous victim.

Many people in my senior class had trouble remembering her. They dug up old yearbook photos and confirmed she did indeed graduate with us at West Brook Senior High School. That’s understandable, you can’t know everyone you went to high school with. But I knew her, and I’d like to write down what I remember about her before she becomes another Facebook profile memorial.

I don’t remember how I met Collette. It must have been soon after I moved back to Texas, and we were friends from middle school until we graduated from high school. We ate lunch together when we had matching lunch periods, went to the movies, showed up at each other’s parties, had sleepovers and hung out at the mall. I can see her sitting on my couch, or my bedroom floor, chatting the night away about nothing in particular. One night, just for fun, I recorded our voices and played it back.

“Turn it off,” she said. “That conversation was boring the first time.”

One day I took a plastic frog to school and pretended to pick it up from the ground. I told her I’d caught a real frog and when I tried to show it to her, she backed away. I tossed it at her and she squealed and ran off. When she came back I admitted it was plastic and she gave me that smile and rolled her eyes. At lunch, I left the frog on my soda can while we went to the food line and when we came back, a group of kids were circling it. Thinking they were crushing a real frog, they smacked the can and spilled soda all over Collette’s food. She was very forgiving.

She was late for every movie. All of them. Not “missed the previews” late, not even “thirty minutes in” late. She would show up a full hour into every show. I usually let her pick the film and she’s the reason I saw Curly Sue and Threesome in the theater. Threesome was so bad, I leaned over near the end and whispered, “This is awful, let’s just go.”

She folded her arms and clenched her teeth. “I paid to see this movie,” she said, “and I’m gonna’ watch it.”

I didn’t argue with her, she’d paid full price to see half a movie. I sat back and watched Stephen Baldwin have an awkward sex scene because fair was fair.

People gave her a hard time about her weight. “You have such a pretty face, they tell me,” she said once. “You would be so pretty if you lost weight. That just, uch…” She didn’t need to put into words how vicious and useless it was to say things like that. Collette was tougher than the people who tried to define her by her body.

Collette and her mother were close. One year her mother rented a hotel room for her daughter’s birthday and invited a group of us to stay. We watched Single White Female and scared ourselves to death. There was cake and a sparkly chandelier from Party City and we stayed up too late and it was one of the best nights of my life. Collette loved parties.

Dooney and Burke handbags were a must-have among affluent girls at my high school. We weren’t affluent girls, but Collette’s mom gave her the money to buy one anyway. There was only one store that sold them at Parkdale Mall and they had a reputation for using saleswomen to intimidate teens into leaving the store. I didn’t want to shop in a store like that but she wanted me to go along so I went with her for support. She marched right up to the counter and picked out a purse without paying any attention to how the saleswomen were looking at her. Collette was fearless.

I tried to find pictures, but I haven’t yet. Pictures were physical back then. I did find the note she wrote me in our senior yearbook. It read:

Hi Georgia,

Well, it’s four years later and soon we’ll be off to college. I can’t believe we’re SENIORS. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years but it seems like we’re always busy. Good luck in college and the future. Have fun and remember you only live once.

Love,

Collette Sulcer

Ps. Stay in touch.

We didn’t. Every graduate in 1994 knew how hard it would be to stay in touch in a world that had stopped writing letters but hadn’t yet discovered cellphones, Facebook and e-mail. I went out of state and she went to Lamar. She became the kind of medical technician her co-workers can’t stop raving about. An entire hospital of medical professionals in Port Arthur, Texas is grieving her tonight.

When Facebook took off, we found each other again and I followed her life from a distance. She had a baby and I thought, “We’re both mothers now, look at us.” On August 27, I was working late and I saw a Facebook notification pop up that read, “Collette Sulcer has marked herself safe from Hurricane Harvey.”

“That’s nice,” I thought. She was in Beaumont, not Corpus or Houston. She was safe.

Except a few hours later, she wasn’t.

I’d been thinking about Collette a lot lately because I’ve been writing about her. I’ve often written about her, under different names and characters. She exemplified how to be a friend, and I admired her honesty, her positivity, her support and her compassion. Collette was someone I wished I could be more like.

I hope Jordyn reads this someday, when she’s older. I’d like her to know what her mother was like when she was young, that she was a hero who loved her more than her own life, but that she was also a person worth knowing who uplifted everybody who knew her. They deserved more time together.

Author of Strawberry Shortcake: Return of the Purple Pie Man, Disney’s Frozen Comic Collection, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Animated and Littlest Pet Shop: Open for Business. She’s written for IDW Publishing, Hasbro, Lion Forge, American Greetings and Scholastic, and her work has been discussed in Comics Beat and The Washington Post. Subscribe to the newsletter

Shrimp Gumbo

My grandmother visited me several years ago in Washington state and showed me how to make gumbo. Her family of Moutons and DeCouxs on the border of Texas and Louisiana taught her how to make it without a recipe, but even though she had it well-memorized, she had trouble replicating the flavor in my Pacific Northwest kitchen. “It just doesn’t taste right,” she said.

We went to the market, picked up a couple of raw, Dungeoness crab middles and threw them in the pot without cleaning them. Suddenly the flavor met her approval.

My grandmother is turning 90 this year and can’t travel across the country anymore. I’ve been too intimidated to make gumbo without her, but when my neighbors came back from a fishing trip and handed us a bag of frozen crabs, it seemed like the time to try was at hand. I’m happy to announce my experiment was successful! But not without some modifications to the base recipe.

The scariest part of gumbo-making has always been browning the roux, an essential part of the process if you’re trying to replicate that New Orleans restaurant flavor. Some of the best shrimp gumbos I’ve had have been in small towns in the Louisiana swampland or around the Texas border, and all of the good ones have that familiar dark brown broth. My grandmother would accept nothing less. Fortunately, my favorite television cook, Alton Brown, has solved the roux conundrum: don’t toil over a saucepan, bake it!

After an hour and half in a cast iron skillet, my roux was brown and not burnt. There is a difference.

The most laborious part of the process was the shrimp. I gave up on finding what I needed at the local supermarkets, as frozen shrimp and counter shrimp always came headless. I bought my fresh shrimp at Skagit’s Own Fish Market, then I had to remove all of those little heads, casings and tails. They stuck me in the finger several times. I didn’t bother to de-vein because they were just too small, but if you have large prawns, don’t skip that step.

I deviated from Alton’s instructions here to not only throw the shrimp heads, tails and casings into a stockpot, but to also throw my defrosted Dungeoness on top and increase the water to compensate. I made a lot of seafood stock and didn’t need to use it all, and cooked the crabs at the same time.

When the stock was ready and the crabs were cooked, I cooled them down and removed their meat. I ended up with more meat than I needed, and one whole crab would have been more than enough for a batch of gumbo. Alton’s version doesn’t include crab, but I’ve never had a bowl in backwoods Louisiana that didn’t include it.

Alton’s recipe called for a fresh tomato, but I substituted my one and only canned ingredient: crushed tomato with green chiles. The green chiles added some heat and the crushed tomato added a little more liquid than I can get from a fresh tomato, at least until I grow my own tomatoes. I also substituted Cajun seasoning for Cayenne, just because I happened to have it.

Andouille sausage was tricky. Local supermarkets were out of the question and I didn’t feel like ordering it. I finally found it at a butcher’s shop in Stanwood that will be getting more of my business in the future called Del Fox Custom Meats. I knew I was on the right track when I smelled it browning.

I was afraid I added too much stock near the end, but proper thickening came together after I added the filé powder. I ordered a bottle several months ago in anticipation of this attempt, but as it turns out, it’s available in several markets in the Skagit area.

I poured it over brown rice, because I prefer brown rice. White rice is traditional. Notice something traditional that’s missing? NO OKRA! Alton explains in his gumbo episode that okra is also a thickener, and using both filé powder AND okra makes paste, not soup. I hate okra’s slimy, seedy existence, so its omission is fine by me.

Grandma would be proud!

Here’s the modified version of Alton Brown’s ingredient list:

  • 1 whole Dungeoness crab, raw
  • 1/4 cup green onion (garnish)

Follow his instructions, but make sure to include the crab this time!

Author of Strawberry Shortcake: Return of the Purple Pie Man, Disney’s Frozen Comic Collection, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Animated and Littlest Pet Shop: Open for Business. She’s written for IDW Publishing, Hasbro, Lion Forge, American Greetings and Scholastic, and her work has been discussed in Comics Beat and The Washington Post. Subscribe to the newsletter