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Paradise, Lost.

The first time we went to St. George Island, Sam was only two. Rob couldn’t get away, and so I flew from Lansing to Tallahassee with the diaper bag, the purse, the umbrella stroller, and the Terrible Two-year-old who threw his sippy cup at the besuited businessman who had the misfortune to sit next to us.

I wasn’t sure about the whole Florida thing – I associated it with idiots from high school who drove down in caravans over spring break so that they could get sunburned, drink too much and have sex with strangers. I knew about Miami from watching TV, the Everglades from watching “Gentle Ben” as a child, Disney because I was a human being living in the world, and West Palm Beach because my in-laws lived there. Mostly, it seemed too glitzy for me (except for the Everglades) and I really don’t like to be hot very much. I don’t like summers here, so it seemed strange to pay money to travel someplace else to be hot and sweaty. It was, however, my parents’ money, so I agreed. They loved St. George. They said it was like the Maine of my childhood summers. I packed up my baby and flew.

Sam and “Papa” flying kites on the beach, their shouts reaching me as I sat on the deck and read. Putting on shoes and running down to climb the tree and rescue the kite, clinging to the prickly branches with one hand while cutting the string with the other, separating kite from tree. A hero’s welcome on the ground from my father and my son, and who knew I could climb a tree?!

They were right, it was magic. Remote, unspoiled, reachable by flying into Tallahassee and driving West, through the town of Apalachicola, across a bridge, and onto St. George, a barrier Island in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no nightlife, aside from a couple of restaurant bars, at least not in the winter. When we visited the Island, every year for ten years, it was too cold for the folks who visited from Atlanta and Memphis; they didn’t come until later. For us, arriving from a place where it was 12 degrees and snowing when we waved farewell to Daddy, it was perfect. No hotter than 70 in the daytime, cool in the evenings, with a variety of sunny and misty days. we didn’t care; we headed to the beach regardless of the weather, collected shells and beach glass, rode bikes, played ping-pong, flew kites,  made sand people on the beach, scrambled up the steep rocks of Bob Sykes Cut, and fished. We threw our windows open and left them that way the night we arrived, anxious to hear the waves and feel the moist air after months of dry heat. Sam got a boogie board and paddled into the waves, astonishing passing Southern types who couldn’t believe anyone who “go into that freezing cold water.” We took pictures of sunsets, and called Grandma to the window when a school of dolphins swam past, leaping into the air and seeming to stay long enough for her to see them, every single time. Many times, we saw no one else on the beach, and sometimes we saw a lone dog out for a run, or a fisherman heading to the Cut to try his or her luck.

We went into Apalachicola often, making the half-hour trek across the bridge to eat out, shop at the Piggly Wiggly, or browse the tiny but well-curated bookstore. We ate fried everything, since that part of Florida is really The South; we ate fried Grouper, and fried shrimp fresh from the water visible at the end of the street, and french fries and the ubiquitous hush puppy. I learned to eat oysters there two years ago, and it was a consuming passion for me to try them everywhere we went, fried, raw, in stew and any other way they were offered to me. We were aware, always, of the poverty just around the edges of the upscale restaurants and shops; we saw the oystermen coming into the Piggly Wiggly, dirty and exhausted after a day of tonging in the bay. We saw the affluent folks who sold real estate to other affluent folks, the bankers, and the people wealthy enough to own property where they could live as “snowbirds” and we saw the children in ragged clothes on the playground outside the local elementary school.

Walking down to the beach the minute we had our bags inside the front door, before we even checked out the house. Walking carefully on an unfamiliar path, flashlights in hand, following the sound and smell of the ocean. Flashlight beams catching scores of tiny, white crabs scuttling on the sand, fleeing into holes we had never noticed. A new tradition: going out at night to spot the crabs, careful not to trample them.

We took it all in; we talked about it. It was not a resort, but a place where people lived, and worked and sometimes, suffered terribly. We talked to Sam about it as he grew older, talking freely about the tension between the desire to keep the area unspoiled, and the need for people to have work to do to support their families. After Katrina devastated the area, we drove past the shattered and shuttered remains of homes and businesses along the water on Route 98; within two years it was mostly rebuilt, although the slow flow of promised government aid had frustrated and disappointed many, and caused some to leave the place where they had planned to stay forever. We talked about a lot of things, the four of us. It was time out of the busy-ness that regulated our life at home, and there was a shifting of time and roles as I became my parents’ child again, watched my father fly kites with Sam or work with him on the giant jigsaw puzzle that was begun every year. Sam learned about the Island’s lighthouse, about river conservation, about commercial fishing and about the riggings and sails on the boats docked in the harbor at Apalachicola. He learned about cormorants, pelicans, herons and the lowly gull. On the years we drove home with my parents, he visited Civil War battlefields, learned about historic preservation in Franklin, Kentucky, ate at a Waffle House, and saw Confederate flags flying.

Three years ago, my mother, not in good health to begin with, fell ill and went to the hospital in Apalachicola. She spent the rest of her stay there, in a hospital that serves the poorest of the poor, and has none of the modern, shiny accoutrements of the hospitals we know around here. No fancy equipment for tests, no Kleenex, no padded armchairs for my father to sit in during the hours he spent by her side. There were discussions of driving her to Tallahassee or Panama City by ambulance, and a relative with “connections” offered to send his private plane to fly her wherever she needed to go. in the end, they were able to stabilize her and send her home, but there was a dark question hanging over all trips thereafter. What if it happened again? What if we couldn’t get her treated in time? It was an Island, after all, an Island without so much as a Redi-Care. Two years after that, she tripped and fell coming out of a restaurant. we were back at the hospital, her wrist was broken, they thought; they thought maybe she should see a specialist when she got home. Pain meds and a sling for the long drive North.

Sam carrying a bag of stale bread to the beach, siting regally on the sand with a cloud of gulls hovering overhead. They follow him wherever he goes; he throws pieces of bread to those he deems neediest. He misses his dogs, I think. He does this every year, and every year I think I shouldn’t let him encourage the gulls, that he might be bothering the rare “others” on the beach. It makes him so happy, and I let him.

Last year, a beautiful visit. No hospital trips, lots of sun, many oysters, a house at the perfect location: the point where the beach met the Cut that marks the passage from the bay to the open ocean. Sam climbed the rocks of the Cut while I combed the beach for perfect pieces of glass, shells that caught my eye, and perfect moments of transcendent peace that I seem to find only on that beach. Trying to balance my love of the place with the understanding that it wouldn’t last forever. My parents are old, my mother isn’t well, and it just isn’t a trip that we could afford to make without their help. I tried not to cling, but to enjoy everything fully, to make it a part of me from the salt-freshness of new oysters to the sheer joy of Sam running into the cold waves. Last year, as he paddled out on his boogie board, a school of dolphins came as close to shore as I have ever seen them, their flippers and benign smiles visible without binoculars. They were so close to Sam, that if he had wanted to, he could have paddled out further and joined them in their revels. Maybe they knew; maybe they wanted us to have something wonderful to remember.

This year, the house was selected and reserved, I picked a week to travel, and I fixed the ocean in my mind as the reward for the harshness of winter, of too much bill and not quite enough cash, of struggles with homework and family disasters. Yesterday I got the call from my mother saying that she hadn’t been feeling well, and that her doctor thought it was better if she didn’t spend six weeks on an Island with no decent hospital nearby. I heard the regret in her voice, the sense of losing control over everything because her body refused to support her plans; I could only say that it was okay, that I understood, and that we would try again next year. I knew it was over, that there wouldn’t be a “next year,” that St. George was forever a place in my memories, like my grandparents’ houses in Ohio and Rhode Island, long ago sold to other people, filled with strange furniture, inaccessible to me. I told Sam, who was as mature and understanding as I could have hoped, seeing a part of his entire remembered life slipping away.

In my office, in the dark, I cried. I cried for the ocean I might not see again, the lost possibility of finding peace as I measured my small problems against the grandeur of the eternal ocean, the time spent out of real life with my parents and my child. It’s nobody’s fault, I knew it was coming, but I’m just damned sad. My comfort, at the moment, is that it’s all still there, whether I see it or not. How long can I be sad in a world that has such beauty in it?

A Floridilemma

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Here’s the question: if you have been to a restaurant many times in the past and had excellent food, and then you have a clunker meal, do you write it off on the basis that everyone has a bad day, or do you take the stand that a really good restaurant doesn’t have a bad day? Does it make a difference if there was more than one problem, making it harder to say “it was just a new waitress” or “maybe the kitchen was slammed?” Do you see the experience as a possible sign of decline, and think twice before choosing where to eat there again?

During my most recent trip to Florida, we had lunch one day at The Owl Cafe. I can honestly say that I had never had a bad meal at The Owl, that their menu is stimulating and well-executed, that their waitstaff is generally intelligent and attentive, that their rooms are elegant in a spare and welcoming way, and that (and this is a huge deal for me) they are exceedingly good to my parents, who are regular customers during their annual stay in Florida. I have eaten dishes at The Owl that have a special spot in my heart – the Lump Blue Crab Cakes Benedict and the Oyster Po Boy, for example.

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On our most recent visit, however, it was as if the restaurant was temporarily possessed by evil (or maybe just not very smart) aliens. In place of the usually astute and interesting waitstaff, we had a very pleasant, but clueless waitress who would have been more at home at The Waffle House. She could recite what was on the menu, but was clearly not trained in the way typical of Owl staff to make good suggestions, talk wine pairings or figure out how a dish might be modified to be eaten by a child or someone on a restricted diet. These are not hanging offenses, but they were shocking in the context of this particular establishment, where I have never been served by anyone who didn’t seem to have a deep interest in and understanding of the food and wine offerings. Also, I have to admit that I am kind of a snob (this will not come as a shock to my regular readers) and that the back-and-forth that’s possible with a well trained wait-person is part of the pleasure I derive from meal in a good restaurant. I have nothing against the lack of polish of a small town diner waitress, and I don’t expect the person who takes my order at Taco Bell to engage me in a discussion about Merlot or chevre, but I do think fine dining waitstaff should know their stuff and come across as a good resource.

We all ordered, and I chose the Shrimp, Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya, over rice. I noticed that the menu specified that this was a “mild” version (possibly in an attempt to avoid damage to the Prilosec Generation) but I asked if mine could be made spicier. The waitress assured me that it could. My mother ordered the Sauteed Mushrooms and Vegetables over a grit cake, my dad requested the Prime Rib Roast sandwich, and Sam went with an interesting special offering of chili dogs made with Boarshead hotdogs, house-made chili and bakery rolls. Then we waited, and waited and waited for such a long time that I feared that we would need to add Sam’s graduation dinner to the order despite the fact that he had just turned 12. A long restaurant wait is never a peak life experience, but if one is having a relaxed meal with peers and there is lots to talk about and free-flowing alcohol, it can become a pretty okay part of the occasion. Not so much when you are dining with a hungry kid, two exhausted senior citizens and you, yourself, are positively twitching to eat lunch and get back to the beach.

Strike three was my jambalaya, which was pretty and well-prepared except that it was completely un-spicy. I wasn’t looking fore blow-your-head -off, and I honestly would have understood (and changed my order) if the waitress had returned and told me that the chef really had an investment in preparing the jambalaya a certain way and felt that it would not represent his work well if he changed it. I was, however, expecting a little bite, and there was absolutely none. It was competent, but not what I asked for, which means either that the waitress failed to communicate or the chef failed to comply. Not great either way. I will say, however, that my dad’s lunch looked and tasted great, Sam was happy, and the grit cake that came with my mother’s sauteed vegetables and mushrooms was to die for. Since she doesn’t eat much, I actually ended up abandoning the dull jambalaya and snarfing her meal, which was delicious.

So, they had a bad day. None of us died, I’m happy to report, and three out of four of us ended up eating quite well. (Well, four out of four since I ate my mother’s lunch). Here’s how I’ll solve my dilemma: to The Owl, I will say that they should be careful to maintain their typically high standards of service. I’ll be back, but I want to know that I’ll have the smart service and the great food quality I have come to expect over the years. To you, I will say: if you are in Apalachicola, eat at The Owl. Enjoy the great views out the big windows, order something besides the Jambalaya, and savor the interesting recipes and fresh, local ingredients that characterize their food. Did I fix it?

Mullet Roe: A Guest Post

Call me a slacker for having two guest posts in a month (although you have to admit that Matzoh Ball Soup and Mullet Roe are pretty diverse topics) but I think this is a great opportunity for all of you to read about something other than my self-absorbed thoughts about food and cooking. This post is written by Regular Reader Robert, who lives in Florida, and who I first “met” about a year ago when he swept me away with his jewel-like prose to win a competition on this blog. He went on to support, amuse, infuriate and generally motivate me, and he has sent me mullet roe and a pair of oyster knives in the mail, so I know he’s real. He calls himself a “cracker,” but find that he is remiscent of Andy Griffith playing Matlock with that “aw shucks” veneer  covering a mind like a steel trap (that probably has some kind of critter in it that I would refuse to eat). I hope you enjoy this as much as I did…..

It is the second week in January and I find myself cleaning Mullet again. January in Florida is a little different than most of the country, cool nights and sunny warm, if not hot days. Today’s chore is somewhat of a letdown, probably like Yankees closing up the barn for the winter. The fish are light and limber, lean from the spawn and just plain worn out from the last month’s excitement. They hung around late this season waiting for the cold water to signal their migration out to open water to reproduce. Tampa Bay was literally boiling with Mullet just 3 weeks ago, the cast netters did very well while the cold
weather held off.

robert-1 Today’s catch are the young ones, that weren’t ready yet to go out, some with small ovaries partly filled with immature eggs. Next year they would have been large enough to complete the mission, had not they run into this particular fisherman. Some of the larger fish had already been out to sea and were empty of their reproductive load, their fat layer was all but depleted, muscles soft from intense activity for so long a stretch. But also in my cooler are a couple of fat hens, who somehow had not been triggered yet to spawn, ovaries firm and full of tens of thousands of tiny bright yellow eggs. Natural selection at work, the dumb and lazy do not perpetuate the species. These egg filled ovaries, or Roe Sacs, are a real bonus today, usually by this time the Roe season has long since ended here.

robert-2In years past a waste product swept aside with the other entrails, “Red Roe” has become a high end commodity worldwide. Since Mullet populate nearly every inch of the earths oceans, almost every culture of mankind exploits the meat and eggs of these prolific fish. In fact the mullet is a foundation to the entire food chain of the world’s seas. The sheer numbers of fish, from almost microscopic in size to over 20 inches long, is incomprehensible. Literally everything eats mullet, one size or another. So this is why the mullet produce so many eggs each year, to attempt to keep up with the world demand. As I clean these last few mullet it strikes me that it must suck to be the lynch-pin that the entire world marine environment hangs on by.

robert-3Since the middle of the 19th century man has had the capacity to wipe mullet out of existence. With the event of steam power, we have been able to capture and harvest fish faster than it can reproduce. Law and civilization have kept a cautious grip on this power, and when mankind becomes too aggressive, some form of conservation is tentatively enacted. As we move into a global economy, this logical restraint is becoming less effective at conserving the resource. Meanwhile, world demand for this delicious food is skyrocketing. Here in Florida, harvesting of Mullet is effectively limited to hand nets in an attempt to revive a waning population of fish in our waters. Without the mullet, the other important fish also decline in numbers and our entire economy suffers. So it is a difficult and precarious balance in the harvest of Mullet. And Mullet Roes are even more susceptible to overharvest. For each Roe Mullet caught before spawning there are thousands of offspring lost. Prior to our current rules, Florida was the destination of a global fleet of Red Roe boats that came to harvest the eggs, rejecting the meat and transporting the roe back to foreign countries for processing and consumption. When sport fishing declined the authorities here stood up and took notice. In the last few years the populations seem to have rebounded, and hopefully the fishing pressure will be balanced in the future to sustain the species.

robert-4With all that said, so many people all over the world can’t be wrong. Mullet roe is considered a delicacy in many cultures, and has been for many centuries. In its most common form, it is salt cured to produce a bacteria free food and dried to allow it to be stored for extended periods of time without spoiling. Known as Bottarga, Karisumi, and many other names, dried salted Mullet Roe is commonly available, always for a high price. This process is openly shared and is rather straightforward, as much of meat preparation and processing is worldwide. But the key here is freshness, cleanliness and caution. Raw protein, abused during processing, can bring on serious health concerns. Once harvested from the fish, the eggs need to be immediately stabilized and dried quickly. In most cultures, strong ultraviolet light from the sun is used in addition to high salt concentrations to keep the food safe until it is dry enough to store safely. When finished the Bottarga is covered in Beeswax or vacuum sealed and packaged in some attractive manner.

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Ann’s Bottarga while drying.
Because of the extreme cost of the finished product and the high demand, there is money to be made in this business. Abroad cheap labor, inadequate facilities and production pressures can lead to some pretty groady product being distributed. Supplies are sometimes not questioned and fishermen are encouraged to increase harvests. So finding a reputable brand or supplier is something the end user should be conscious of. If you are going to eat Bottarga, this is just as important as free-range livestock, organic vegetables or eating locally. Lucky for me Florida is surrounded on all sides by oceans and rivers containing Mullets, and ample sunshine “damn near every day”. So once a year, when the chill hits the air, its Roe season. In our hands the finest product available can be produced for no money, just our labor.

robert-6 So be nice to a redneck, you never know. (Ann sent me some Maple Syrup.)

The Apalachicola Seafood Grill and The Piggly Wiggly

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On the second day of our Florida trip, we dined at one of our favorite, always good, “coming home” restaurants in Apalachicola: The Apalachicola Seafood Grill. Located in the heart of “downtown” Apalachicola (within spitting distance of the town’s solitary traffic light) , The Grill offers a simple menu, The World’s Largest Fried Grouper Sandwich, an impressive assortment of beer (you get your own bottle) and the motto “No Whining.” We have been eating at The Grill at least once a trip since Sam was two and threw a sippy cup at the front window. We’ve not been disappointed.  I have had everything on the menu that I want to try, and the Grill is not the kind of restaurant that changes it’s menu. There are fresh shrimp, oysters and fishes fried, baked, broiled, in soups, stews and chowders, in sandwiches and/or in baskets. City folk can have a salad with seafood in it, if they insist. If I arrived at The Grill to discover that they were offering a terrine of langoustine on a bed of microgreens with a Guiness reduction, I would burst into tears.

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I will admit that, with no shame, I ordered another fried oyster basket because it’s one of my top two things to order there (the other being the Oyster Stew).  I also wanted to compare them to the previous day’s offering at Papa Joe’s, to see which I liked best. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. If one can’t eat fried food every day of the week in the South, one should stay home with one’s flaxseed bread and grilled chicken breasts. Anyway, the oysters were excellent, as always, but I didn’t love them as much as I loved them at Papa Joe’s. The breading was a little denser, and the idea (in my opinion) of a fried oyster is that there should be only the merest hint of salty crisp outside the oyster, so that there is a contrast that highlights the juicy sweetness of The Main Event. The oysters were delicious, my Dixie Beer was refreshing, and it was a pleasure to be in a place that I love, but next year I’m going back to the Oyster Stew, which is probably the best I’ve ever had.

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Prior to dinner at The Grill, we ventured into the Piggly Wiggly in Apalachicola. I always enjoy visiting a “foreign” grocery store (Rob had to drag me out of a convenience store in Puerto Rico because I was so fascinated by the merchandise) and the P-W wasd no exception. First off, I was fascinated by the store’s bags, which were emblazoned with a pig wearing an apron that said “I Love Barbecue.” There’s a cry for help, if I ever saw one. Second, I was just really interested in all of the things they sold that I had never seen before. I walked around taking pictures, no doubt causing the locals who were actually buying food to think that I should probably visit Community Mental Health along with the self-loathing pig. My friend Michelle says I am the only person she knows who takes pictures in the grocery store, but see if you don’t learn a lot about the culture in Apalachicola, Florida, from my finds…..

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