Inspired by the release of Hidden Figures, my friend Samiyyah planned a trip for us out to the space coast. We would see the movie, visit the Kennedy Space Center, and have dinner at Dixie Crossroads, a restaurant in Titusville known for their shrimp. I instantly loved the idea. I’d been jonesing to see Hidden Figures, the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960’s. As a mathematician, an engineer, and a computer programmer, these three women were instrumental to America’s space program. It’s a great story about overcoming adversity and pioneering engineering & mathematics. It makes you want to learn more about the American Space Program, and if you live in the state of Florida, the Kennedy Space Center is a great place to learn. Having grown up in Florida, my parents took me to the Kennedy Space Center when I was a kid, but a lot has changed since then.
Rockets: A Trip to the Kennedy Space Center
I walked in to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex slightly bewildered. Staring at the visitor’s guide, I realize there is a lot more to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) than I remembered. The map shows a collection of buildings the size of a small college campus. Where do we start? There is the newly renovated (2016) Heroes & Legends building and adjacent rocket garden for learning about early space exploration and rocket science, a bus tour, the Apollo/Saturn V Center (built in 1996), the Space Shuttle Atlantis building (built in 2012), the IMAX theater, and the Journey to Mars exhibit.
It’s a lot to absorb in just three hours, but that’s all the time we had. Our whirlwind tour of the Kennedy Space Center started with a bus tour and a stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The bus tour drove us through a maze of space shuttle launch pads and alligators (the KSC is surrounded by a National Wildlife Refuge) on our way to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The highlight was a photo op of the historic launch pad used for the Apollo missions that landed the first humans on the moon.
At the Apollo/Saturn V Center, we watched a brief introductory video and were then herded into another theater to learn how launch control works. A cluster of authentic 1968 launch control consoles stood before us at the front of the theater as we watched the consoles light up and listened to the Apollo 8 countdown—it was the first manned launch from the Kennedy Space Center.
After the shows, you enter the main building, where the 363 feet long Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions stretches from one end of the building to the other. You can actually walk under the rocket as you explore the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
The building is full of treasured remnants of the Apollo age: The NASA van that carried astronauts to the launch pad, the Apollo lunar lander used to carry crew members to the surface of the moon, a moon buggy used to explore the moon’s surface, moon rocks, the Apollo 14 Kitty Hawk Command Module, early spacesuit prototypes, etc. Walking amongst the Apollo artifacts and observing their unusual appearance, I wonder about the creative minds that came up with these unusual shapes – alien designs so unlike the winged planes that came before them. The physical evidence of their innovation is stunning.
Our next stop was the Space Shuttle Atlantis building, home of the space shuttle Atlantis, the Shuttle Launch Experience, a model of the Hubble space telescope, and an exhibit on what it’s like to live in space. I wandered around the building casually looking at the different exhibits while my friend stood in line for the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulator ride that lets you experience what it feels like to be launched into space. I was most intrigued by how the astronauts lived in space – what they ate, how they slept, etc.
I learned that zero gravity isn’t the most friendly environment for eating. If you’re not careful, your food will fly away like a napkin in the wind. That’s why tortilla shells are so popular in space – you can stuff your food into a closed pocket so it won’t float off. Your taste buds also change up there, and you may find yourself craving spicy foods. Consequently, salsa is also popular with the astronauts.
Rock Shrimp: Dinner at Dixie Crossroads
When not in space, the shrimp at Dixie Crossroads is another popular food item amongst astronauts. To quote Warren Resen of the SCC Observer, “In its heyday, NASA’s visitors and employees were regular patrons of Dixie Crossroads in nearby Titusville. Engineers, scientists, politicians, foreign dignitaries, reporters, personalities and of course astronauts came to what was undeniably the best place to eat in the area and big enough to accommodate large groups. NASA would literally take over the restaurant, exposing it to a world-wide audience.” More recently, the restaurant was featured on a 2014 episode of Emeril’s Florida.
Dixie Crossroad’s Thompson family are rock shrimp pioneers. It was the Thompson family that turned rock shrimp from trash into treasure in the 1970’s. Rodney Thompson used to bring rock shrimp home to his family and challenge them to find a way to cook them. It was his daughter, Laurilee Thompson, that looked at the shrimp and thought, “They look like lobster. Why don’t we cook ’em like lobster.” She split the shells in half and broiled a batch of the rock shrimp with butter. Everyone loved it.
The next challenge was to find a better way to crack open the shrimps’ rock hard shells. Rodney, part-fisherman, part-inventor that he was, developed a new machine to split open the shrimp. Rodney soon opened a seafood market for the distribution of rock shrimp, which later evolved into Dixie Crossroads in 1983. Since then, Dixie Crossroads has become a “world-famous” destination for rock shrimp.
From the moment you arrive at Dixie Crossroads seafood restaurant, you know this place is all about the shrimp. Cartoonish red shrimp wearing black top hats greet you from stained glass windows on either side of the door. Inside, a gigantic pink shrimp sculpture holds out a guest book for you to sign. The walls abound with sea-themed artwork from Al Rao.
We took our seats in the large, yet humble, dining room, and ordered our drinks. The meal begins with a complimentary order of corn fritters, dusted with powdered sugar. These are like a sweeter, more delicious form of hush puppy that could almost double as dessert.
In addition to the corn fritters, the restaurant has a large selection of appetizers. With the exception of the Wisconsin Cheese Curds, all the appetizers are seafood in one form or another. We had a coupon for fried crabby bites, little meatball-size morsels of fried stuffing with crabmeat folded in, served with cocktail sauce for dipping.
The crabby bites were fine, but rock shrimp are really the main event at Dixie Crossroads. You can order them by the dozen or you can order them as part of a combination platter, like in the Cape Canaveral Special or Dixie Spectacular. You can choose from 3 different preparations of rock shrimp: broiled, fried, or steamed, but broiled with butter is still the gold standard. I peeled my first rock shrimp from its shell and dipped it in butter. It really does taste like lobster.
By limiting myself to a dozen shrimp, I had room for dessert. Like every seafood restaurant in Florida that I can think of, Dixie Crossroads has key lime pie for dessert. Their variation has an excellent filling – both sweet and tart – but the crust is a little tightly-packed (a.k.a. hard) for my taste. Overall, it’s a good piece of pie, and an excellent way to finish a seafood dinner.
Knowing their history, and tasting their rock shrimp, I can see how Dixie Crossroads became the landmark seafood restaurant that it is. Even now, in the 21st century, rock shrimp are a relatively unique dining option. They are still considered a rare delicacy in the state of Florida. On our way out, I passed a display of souvenir T-shirts and saw one with a drawing of a rock shrimp alongside a rocket launch. I chuckled to myself, thinking “rockets and rock shrimp.” This is how you do Titusville.