The scent of prawn is not a subtle one. And neither, it would seem, is the art of eating them. For the avid prawn lover, the annual Nelson Bay Prawn Festival was a spectacle – and feast – not to be missed. For my father, it had become a religion.

Every entrant’s plate was piled high with prawns. At least 5 dozen or more. And in almost every bucket beneath almost every table, a rapid accumulation of prawn heads had begun. I say almost because for most of the competitors, the race was to see who could remove the head, prise the meat from the shell and ram the prawns down the throat as quickly as possible without vomiting.

But there was one man who stood out from all the rest. He was the biggest man I’d ever seen in my life. I estimated that his head alone would weigh in at a little under 200lbs. To calculate the rest of his mass was way beyond my comprehension, but I thought I could probably fit three of me into each of his trouser legs. He had a shock of wiry black hair, olive skin and tiny black eyes set deep beneath a huge brow, giving him the general demeanour of a latin drug lord.

There would be none of that sissy-boy pansy stuff for him – not one head would be making an appearance in his bucket! Those prawns went down holus bolus. Head, shell, the lot. One after the other. I was fascinated.

That’s my father.

He’d been working on that technique for a year now, determined to show those small town ruffians the true art of eating prawns. Dad hated to be beaten at anything. This year he won. There was a great deal of jeering, snorting and guffawing going on amongst the competitors, and most of it seemed to be emanating from my father.

Until they disqualified him for an illegal technique. Then the jeering and hollering was directed at my father for so long that he turned bright red and I was frightened he might explode. A few of the local louts learned some lessons in the art of flying before Mum calmed Dad down enough for us to leave.

Thankfully, Mum had talked him out of participating in the grape squashing contest after the humiliating experience of the prawns. The scent of fermented grape is not much better than prawn, so for myself I was grateful that the assault on my senses had been brought to an abrupt halt.

Dad ranted for most of the journey home, but had resolved by the time we arrived to perfect his technique and teach those peasants a lesson the following year. Odd that no amount of humiliation can quash such an obsession.

© Bea Pierce, 1998