Saturday, January 31, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are in Jacksonville, Florida

For the past month, I’ve been based in Orange Park, a suburb of Jacksonville that the locals call “the OP.” But truth be told, I could be in any newish suburb of any mid-sized city. Everything around me is a franchise, from the hotels (Holiday Inn, Ramada) to the restaurants (Outback, Red Lobster) to the stores (Target, Walmart).

Sadly, this is the story of modern real estate development. A nationwide homogenization is in process, with every city following an identical formula. The sameness can be both familiar (“I know I can find it at Walgreens”) and disorienting (“Do I turn after the third or fourth strip mall?”). At times, you really could be anywhere.

I think this is why I’m so drawn to historic towns and neighborhoods – places with a look and feel that can’t be found anywhere else. Here in Jacksonville, closer to downtown, there are charming old neighborhoods like Riverside/Avondale, with its beautiful mansions along the St. Johns River, and San Marco, with its Italianate central square (pictured below) lined with unique, individually-owned shops and restaurants. (Incidentally, Bistro Aix in San Marco was hands down the best meal we’ve had in Jacksonville.)

But even out here in the burbs there are reminders of the way things used to be. A particularly colorful example is the fish camp restaurant genre. Apparently they’re common in the South, and usually situated in the location of a former bait shop or marina, but I had never encountered one before. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up in a fishing paradise. But with the massive St. Johns River dividing the city in half, and creeks and offshoots all over the place, Jacksonville is a town full of water. It’s a small miracle if you drive 10 minutes without crossing a bridge.

So to get a deep-fried taste of the fish camp concept, we visited the two best-known ones: Clark’s Fish Camp (established 1974; pictured above) and Whitey’s Fish Camp (established 1963). Both are rustic waterfront shacks that have been expanded and adorned with dead critters, although Clark’s takes the latter to another level. It’s like a taxidermy shop meets Alice in Wonderland. Or a National Zoo of the dead. It’s hard to describe how over-the-top the embalmed scenery is, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Suffice to say there are hundreds of once-living animals “roaming” the place, and there was even an angry bear leaping over my head as I ate.

The extensive menus are basically a list of fried __________ (fill in the blank with any seafood.) But fish camps are also famous for frying up exotic things like gator tail, frog legs, ostrich, turtle (“cooter”), antelope, rabbit, swamp onion and more. Having just watched Bear Grylls kill and eat a snake on “Man Versus Wild” – without breaking a sweat, of course – we gamely ordered two of Clark’s “Call of the Wild Appetizers”: fried kangaroo and boa constrictor.

The verdict? All weird meats do not “taste like chicken,” as the waiter described. The kangaroo tasted more like steak or venison, and if I didn’t feel so guilty, I’d have it again. The snake (pictured below) just plain sucked. It was flavorless and incredibly tough. We’re talking five minutes to chew one bite. I do NOT recommend it unless you’re really and truly starving in the Amazon.

My conclusion is that fish camps are a delightful holdout of the Old South. They’re lively, they’re down home, and they’re filled with locals, which is always a good sign. The adventurous menus may get your eyes bulging, and the taxidermied herd might make your hairs stand, but the trick is to just stay calm and order the catfish, people.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gastronomica Orgasmica in Charleston, South Carolina

There are many things that turn me on about Charleston, South Carolina. It’s postcard gorgeous. It’s steeped in history. It’s utterly genteel…yet with a wily progressive streak. Don’t believe me? The county went blue in the election, has smoking ordinances (extremely rare in the deep South) and even boasts several new green housing developments such as Mixson (pictured below).

But what what I may dig most is the food.

Charleston is the epicenter of Lowcountry cuisine, a regional style of cooking found only on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Thanks to an abundant estuary system, Lowcountry cuisine features a rich variety of seafood. The marshlands also allowed for antebellum rice cultivation, making that grain another important staple.

Signature dishes include Shrimp ‘n Grits, Hoppin’ John, Charleston Red Rice and She-crab Soup. My boyfriend, who grew up in Charleston, has made awe-inspiring Shrimp ‘n Grits for me several times, always with a voluble discussion of why only stone ground grits from Logan Turnpike Mill in Georgia are acceptable. Charlestonians do not lack opinions on their food.

Back in 2005, my good friends Cameron and David – who live on Johns Island, one of several barrier islands flanking Charleston – took me to Charleston Cooks! This upscale kitchen store offers Taste of the Lowcountry classes ($25) in its demonstration kitchen. I was responsible for adding the cream to the rice pudding we made. After pouring EIGHT cups of cream in, I came to a full and proper realization of why Lowcountry cuisine is not for the health conscious.

But even that can’t quiet my lip smacking. During the same visit, Cameron, David and I waited 45 minutes for brunch at Hominy Grill, the hallowed Southern restaurant located in a former barbershop. It was worth it for the Mile High Biscuits alone.

This past year, Hominy Grill’s chef, Robert Stehling, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef from the Southeast. He was up against another famed Charleston chef – Mike Lata of FIG. When two of the five nominees are from the same city, you know it’s a foodie destination. In fact, Travelocity named Charleston one of the top 10 culinary cities in the world.

So what was I to do upon my third date with Charleston a few weeks ago? Go all the way, naturally, and insist to Cameron and David that we dine at FIG. I have nothing short of adoration for Hominy Grill, but my meal at FIG proved to be far more (let's just say it) sensual. It was actually to the point where I was making involuntary murmurs of pleasure with each bite of my entrée. Fortunately, Cameron and David seemed to handle the embarrassment okay.

I started with the Warm Salad of Shrimp and Radicchio ($10) in a tasty pancetta vinaigrette (pictured below). Not bitter at all. (N.B. Even salads are artery-busters in Charleston.) Then there was the delicious “side for the table,” the Anson Mills Farro Piccolo Risotto with Broccoli and Country Ham ($7). Farro is a rare Italian wheat grain with a chewy texture, and one of the few American growers is South Carolina’s Anson Mills, an artisan mill that has revived several near-extinct varieties of corn, rice and wheat. I was starting to see how FIG was serious about sourcing high-quality local ingredients.

But sweet nibblets! It was my entrée, the Crispy Caw Caw Creek Pork Shoulder ($27), that I am compelled to write home about. Just typing the words makes me salivate. It was served atop a puree of kabocha squash (the sweetest of all squashes), and let’s just say the kabocha contrasted mind-blowingly well with the incredibly tender, rich, salty, brick-colored pork shoulder, which I could cut with my fork. It was the single best meat dish I’ve had in years.

Afterward, I had to know more about this Caw Caw Creek Farm. Turns out it’s a 90-acre sustainable farm in South Carolina that specializes in heirloom pastured pork. What that means is that the pigs roam freely through woods and pasture and do not receive any hormones, antibiotics or medicines. As a result, Caw Caw Creek pork is moister, tastier and redder in color. It resembles steak more than “the other white meat.” No wonder the farm supplies prestigious chefs like Thomas Keller of Napa's French Laundry.

Caw Caw Creek pork is in a different league. The same could be said for Lowcountry cuisine. True, I may not be able to stand Charleston’s sticky, mosquito-friendly summers. And I may not be able to maintain my waistline in such a high-calorie culture. (I gorged at FIG, only to have crabcake benedict the next morning.)

But boy would I risk it to eat this mythical dish once a month. Or if I was rich...once a week.

Photos courtesy of: Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau;; Shayna Anne;; Caw Caw Creek Farm

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Small Town New Year's Eve

In Apalachicola, Florida (see my last post), there are three essential ingredients for a New Year’s Eve gathering:

1) Fireworks usually illegal in other states
2) Bonfires on the beach or elsewhere
3) Alcohol and plenty of ice in coolers

To procure our fireworks, we headed to a tent sale near the highway. There, we found an astounding variety of things that make noise and blow up. Our splurge was the $75 Black Mamba, which was supposed to be the biggest and baddest around. The family selling the fireworks – a mother, father and their pregnant 15-year-old daughter – proved exceedingly helpful in describing how loud each product was, from “pretty loud” to “real loud” to “deafening.”

Our next mission was alcohol, and this is where my mind was pretty much blown. To our great luck, an upscale liquor store had opened two weeks earlier. It’s called Honey Hole Liquors. Yes, you heard that right. (I have a t-shirt to prove it.) The phone number is 653-BUZZ. Best of all, this cheeky little store lives up to its name and then some. Let’s just say it’s a twinkling oasis of gourmet intoxicants, mixers and snacks. Price tags are placed on sea shells, and your purchases are wrapped in lime green tissue paper.

We were amazed to discover hard-to-find goodies like Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, which is all the rage in the South. If you haven’t had it, you MUST try it with a splash of water and a lemon. A family-owned distillery located on Wadmalaw Island outside Charleston, South Carolina, Firely is not yet available nationally, so when you see it, you have to grab it. We also found six types of Bloody Mary mix and just about everything else our hearts desired, thanks to the enthusiastic help of store worker Dmitrius. (He admitted he loved to drink and had thus found the perfect job.)

A final word about The Honey Hole. Beyond the naughty connotation, the name has a regional tie-in. You see, this area of the Panhandle – culturally more Southern than Floridian – is famous for honey. Tupelo Honey, that is. This mild honey gets its flavor from Tupelo trees that grow along the Apalachicola River in Georgia and Florida, and it’s known for its high quality and accompanying high price. The reason Tupelo Honey is so prized? It never crystallizes.

But I digress. Getting back to the eve, we started the festivities with a fantastic meal of bacon-wrapped venison (shot by our host Kathy’s boyfriend in a hunting camp in Georgia) and ahi tuna bought that day from Doug’s Seafood Truck on the island (pictured below). Local eating at its finest. Who doesn’t love walking up to a truck and saying, “So what’s fresh today Doug?” He can even tell you where it was caught (say Alligator Point, for example) that morning.

Afterwards, we gathered around a crackling bonfire in front of the houseboats. With a low of 35 degrees predicted, we decided it was too cold to set up on the beach. Plus, why drive? So we hunkered down with blankets to watch the fireworks show in Kathy’s parking lot, which eventually expanded to the street. As the decibel level grew, and the clock turned well past 2:00 a.m., I kept waiting for the police to show up. But no one seemed to mind. Not even the neighbors. (They were drunk.)

It’s at moments like this that I really miss the South.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

At World's End in Apalachicola, Florida

You’ve probably never heard of Apalachicola. Neither had I until recently. That’s not surprising when you consider that it’s the belle of Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” a beautiful, remote section of coastline that few know about and even fewer inhabit. (Supposedly, the name came about when a Florida tourism brochure “forgot” to include it.)

To get you situated, Apalachichola (or “Apalach,” as the locals call it) is located on the southernmost tip of the Florida Panhandle. It’s 1.5 hours southwest of Tallahassee (the drive on Highway 319/98 hugs the water and offers gorgeous views), or 1.5 hours southeast of Panama City. No matter how you slice it, it’s not that easy to get to, which is why it remains the perfect place to drop off the grid.

Water is the name of the game here, as the town (population 3,000) is located on the banks of the Apalachicola River, which empties into the massive Apalachicola Bay, which is in turn protected from the Gulf of Mexico by St. George Island, a 22-mile long barrier island with pretty white sand beaches and summer houses on stilts. (I stuck my feet in, and let's just say the Gulf is warmer right now than the Pacific ever gets - and that's in "winter" here!)

These unusual geographic qualities make the bay the uncontested oyster capital of Florida. If people know anything about Apalach, it’s that “good oysters come from there." Approximately 90% of the oysters in Florida come from this bay, as well as 10% of the national oyster supply. The town's big annual event is the Florida Seafood Festival every November, which features an oyster eating (up to 250-300 at a time!) and shucking contest.

As someone who finds a raw oyster the equivalent of a salty blob of mucus, I can assure you that it wasn’t oysters that drew me here. But for those that appreciate the slippery critters, you should know that I have never in my life seen them prepared more ways: fried oysters, baked oysters, broiled oysters, oyster po’ boys, oystercakes, oyster gumbo, etc. They're the centerpiece of every menu, and you could easily eat them three meals a day.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other things to eat, from unbelievably fresh fish caught same day to classic Southern fare. We checked out three great places mentioned in the New York Times36 Hours in Apalachicola article – Caroline’s River Dining, The Owl Café and Verandas – as well as the town’s undisputed best restaurant, Tamara’s, where we chatted with the funny chef/owner, Danny, pictured below, who was a chef in Savannah, Georgia, previously. Oyster lovers will have to join the debate about whether Papa Joe’s or Boss Oyster is the best spot for oysters.

For us, what drew us to Apalach for New Year’s Eve was the opportunity to hang out on a houseboat with my boyfriend’s good friend Kathy. Talk about a unique lifestyle. A massage therapist and yoga teacher (after years of obstinate resistance, I attended – and very much enjoyed – my first yoga class under her tutelage at the Water Street Hotel), Kathy lives full-time on a handcrafted, floating houseboat moored in the Apalachicola River. She also owns a second houseboat, which houses her adorable Spirit of the River Spa. As is typical of a town with one stoplight, everyone knows Kathy, and Kathy knows everyone.

The houseboats are docked in the center of town in a small houseboat community. To enter the boats when the water is low, you climb down a small ladder, and voila. Sometimes you notice a gentle rocking and the squeaking of an otter who lives underneath, but other times, you forget you’re on the water. One of the boats has an engine and rudder should they be needed (i.e. hurricane relocation!), and both have porches overlooking the river channel and surrounding marsh.

Most people who come to Apalach stay in stately inns and B&B’s, however. Modeled after Philadelphia, with wide streets and central squares covering a nine-square-block “downtown,” Apalach is distinctly Southern, thanks to the live oaks and Spanish moss, and distinctly genteel, thanks to its Victorian architecture and boomtown history as an antebellum cotton port, turn-of-the-century timber powerhouse, and more recently, seafood producer. (You're snapped back to modernity when a golf cart whizzes by, however. It's legal to drive them on any road other than the highway.)

Given this rich legacy, the town has a surprisingly large number of historic buildings from 19th and 20th century - over 900 according to the Chamber of Commerce. Many grand homes have been preserved as B&Bs, and The Coombs House (built 1905; around $120/night and up) is the best-known. It was fully booked for New Year’s – a good sign given the current economy. So on Kathy’s recommendation, we stayed at The Bryant House (built 1897; around $90/night and up), run by the vivacious Brigitte, a native of Germany.

A hilarious raconteur, Brigitte says the town cast a spell on her, prompting her to twist her husband’s arm into buying an old house and relocating with their talking Macaw Einstein, who greets you from the porch when you arrive. Brigitte admits to getting “small town panic” every now and then, but insists that as soon as she leaves, she’s desperate to come back to the peace and quiet. Kathy echoed these sentiments. Apalach seems to be one of those places that pulls you in with its sleepy charm and, when you leave, calls you back.

I see what they mean. Despite the region’s nickname, Apalach is not easily forgotten. And to the continued bafflement of my friends, nor is my love affair with teeny tiny historic towns!