New Year’s Eve 2003 at Joe Patti’s Seafood

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Everyone takes a number at Joe Patti’s Seafood in Pensacola.

I’ve been there plenty of times when it was crowded, but I have never seen such a crush of would-be revelers hot to make off with their catch as there were on this New Year’s Eve!

The lobsters seen in the background had just come out of the steamer. When they were placed on the ice for display, I could hear little sizzle sounds and see ice crystals pop.

 

Half Shell with Stripes

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Luminous Bon Secour Bay oysters on the half shell, striped from the irresistible sunshine slipping through the blinds at the Marina Oyster Barn, Pensacola, Florida.

The Marina Oyster Barn is a local hang-out, still crowded at two in the afternoon. It’s friendly, low-key and a happy kind of noisy.

This is a northwest Florida winter day in top form: sixty degrees, raw oysters and fried mullet, seagull watching, boaters easing in and out of their moorings. Ahhhh.

Hungry Hearts

This week I have been listening to the hungry hearts of some children I know. They sat at the kitchen bar Saturday morning and told me riddles, jokes, stories about school, what is on their Christmas lists, helped make waffles, drank caramel hot chocolate, discussed who was going to be a lamb or a shepherd or an angel in their Christmas pageant, went to the piano and played heart and soul with sticky fingers (me, too; I played the bass part then we switched places).

All the while Buck was busy stringing the Christmas tree with lights and carefully placing the Labrador retriever angel at the top. He called us when it was time. We all came over. The old-fashioned big colored lights came on and we collectively went “ooh” held hands sang Greensleeves and Oh Christmas Tree.

And the Sears repairman at work all the while on the oven used one of my paper towels to wipe the moisture from his eyes. As he left I said “Pretty sweet, huh?”

He nodded. “Pretty sweet.”

Ineluctable Life of the Woods

BY FLORIDA PANHANDLE WINTER STANDARDS, Wednesday was cold. Stayed around 45 with a strong wind. The saving grace was bright sunshine. Early afternoon, I pulled on some old sweat pants, a thick pull-over fleece hoodie, and my battered zip-up water resistant boots and headed outdoors to play.

The bird feeders were covered up in feisty pine siskins. A rufous-sided towhee in his executioner-style balaclava peacefully hopped over a log to find the sunflower seeds spilled there. A pair of cardinals watched from a nearby magnolia tree, its large shiny leaves making a swishy sound like brushes on a snare drum.

The area immediately surrounding the house is planted in a mixture of wheat, oats and rye. It’s a critter friendly yard, where deer and bunnies keep it well, if unevenly, mowed. In mid-spring, when the seed heads out, birds lose any residual shyness, perching sideways on the stalks until they have stripped them clean.

Maggie and I walked around. She poked her tan pink nose into bushes, chased a squirrel up an oak tree, then rolled on her back, kicking those muscular back legs into the air, making snort-snuffle sounds through her open mouth, long tongue hanging out the side. I planted some yellow pansies in an old stump out front, pulled a few remaining weeds from among the blue rug junipers Buck and I planted soon after the cottage was built. The junipers have really taken hold and are snaking out across the curved bed of river rock we had laid between them and the sidewalk from parking pad to screen porch. The flat of English ivy I randomly stuck in the ground two springs ago has multiplied into a lush bed, aggressively attempting to scale the garage wall. I don’t care. I’ve always wanted ivy, and each November now when we return from the North Carolina mountains, I patiently pull the vines from the wall and redirect them easterly on the ground.

Walking out back by the big oak tree where we buried Contract last April, I took clippers to begin clearing away the oak and yaupon seedlings that have proliferated there. The big flat stones we placed there re-emerged, and I was able to see that the Easter lily we planted for Maggie’s predecessor has multiplied and this year there will be three. Con’s full name was Westmark’s No-Cut Contract. She was a stocky,big-headed sweet as sugar black lab who almost made it to 17. The sempervivum (hens and chickens) planted on one border has divided as well. It appeared to be well established.

Armed with lopping shears, Maggie and I headed down the dirt road to check on some plants I left in the care of the stream bed before leaving last spring. The calla lily plant, born of a “mystery” bulb that ended up in my bag of paper whites, has gotten huge. It looks more like an elephant ear than something that produces the lovely white calla. Overhead, a resurrection fern dips to tangle in my hair.

On down the road, at the gate, the neglected climbing rose bush pays repays my current ministrations by jabbing heavy thorns into my thumb and index finger; nonetheless I free it from the smilax vine’s stranglehold. I carry gloves stuffed in a pocket. They’ll never wear out.

An afternoon inventory, a little work, a few flowers planted, and I have been transfused once again with the ineluctable life of these woods.

Something Good Happened Here

Daddy disappeared from our lives one November night after a high school football game. My older brother and I were both in the school bands. He played trumpet for the high school; I played flute and piccolo for the junior high group. It was homecoming in that little central Florida town, and both bands had been on the field at halftime.

My older brother got home first. He may have even called the ambulance. I arrived to see our father unconscious, strapped to a gurney with emergency medical people on either side, rushing him from the house to an ambulance, working on his dying heart. And then he was gone. Vanished. Without a word of hope or farewell.

Some years ago, while living in Atlanta, I had a chance to meet a founder of the hospice movement. We talked about the value of being able to say good-bye. He told me that when the death of a loved one comes unexpectedly and suddenly, with no chance for any type of preparation, it can take the average person twenty-five years or longer to reconcile with the event, to find a way to say good-bye. It has been forty, and I’m still working on that.

I have written before of the emotional equivalent of a nuclear winter that descended on our family that night. We never talked enough about it; barely spoke of it at all. Just numbed out. Since then, it has been the proverbial “elephant in the room” and I think, in the way innocent young kids often do, we somehow felt responsible. As adults, my two brothers, two sisters and I love each other — no doubt — but communication has always been very uncomfortable. We have never broken through it.

Until now, maybe.

My older brother and I e-mail occasionally, a vast improvement over the years where neither of us wrote or called. A couple of weeks ago, in an e-mail, I impulsively told him about my blog. Afterward, I thought,”What have I done? What on earth was I thinking?” This is the natural reaction to full and open communication with each other, sadly.

His reaction, reprinted here from his comment on my post, Hot Bricks In a Shotgun House, caused spring to bloom in that nuclear winter corner of my heart.

“You forgot the best part. Standing in front of the crackling fireplace in the living room, wrapped in a blanket and turning as if we were on some invisible rotisserie until all sides were smoking. Then, the dash across the “shotgun” hallway with the biting wind penetrating the blankets as if they weren’t even there. A leap into the feather bed, the bricks and near instantaneous dreams of yet-to-be realized adventures we knew would arrive with the dawn.

I miss you, my Sister. Love you.”

Posted by: Wally Jones at 09:19 PM December 4, 2003 

 

Oh, my Brother. I love you, too.

 

 

 

 

Hot Bricks in a Shotgun House

Buck and I were talking about the “olden days” tonight and how his childhood home in Pensacola was heated by a big coal-oil heater that folks would gather around. We began to reminisce, and soon were laughing about the idea of Santa Clause — a fat man coming down our non-existent Florida childhood chimneys. We figured if adults were going to tell kids a fairy tale about Christmas, they must have decided to make it a whopper. Oh, we have a fireplace now, but it’s primarily for romance rather than warmth.

Talk of home heating reminded me of my father’s parents: Grandma Hattie and Grandfather Stephen Marvin Jones. My dad was born near Jay, Florida. He had moved from one end of the state almost to the other to find work before I was born. That put us in Miami, more than 700 miles from the tiny panhandle town of Jay. Once a year Mother and Daddy would pack up the car with a cooler of fried chicken, potato salad, cold biscuits and sweet tea, along with my two brothers and me, and start that long drive northwest up the Tamiami Trail.

Daddy would always find a place to stop early on to cut a stalk of sugar cane and would give us kids a piece to chew on. I was never too crazy about gnawing on that sweet wood, but it’s wildness seemed to please him. I probably would have enjoyed it more like this.

Even tired children would rejuvenate when our big city highways dwindled to narrow country roads, Daddy’s foot slightly heavy on the gas as we drew closer to his home place, like a horse who senses the barn is near. We always made this annual trip during the school holiday at Christmas time. Cool air and the turpentine smell of burning light wood rushed in when we opened the heavy doors of the big blue and white Ford Fairlane, expelling the hot south Florida air.

My brothers and I were always restless after the long drive, so we would run through the dried corn stalks. The loud rustling nose of the dry stalks warned our grandparents’ wandering cattle of our approach.

Supper time came early in the little shotgun- style house. It was really more like a double-barreled shotgun, though, because two identical sides had a long open hallway down the middle, closed only by an ear-splitting, heavy wooden screen door. Supper was mostly vegetables and corn bread with ham or chicken and dumplings.

It got cold quickly once darkness fell. There were few lights, no tv, and one party-line telephone. As to bathrooms. . . in one concession to modernity, my grandmother did have a tiny closet toilet off the kitchen. But that was grandmother’s. Everyone else had to go through the corn field to the fabled outhouse.

When it came time for bed, and that was early, my brothers and I were tucked all together in an iron frame goose feather bed, sandwiched between what I swear were sheets of ice. My mother and grandmother would layer hand-sewn quilts on top of us until I couldn’t shiver, mostly because I couldn’t move!

Then, with a swift and generous motion, they would reach through the covers near the bottom of the bed and slide in hot, cloth-wrapped bricks near our frigid feet, one for each child. Sleep came quickly and with a depth my adult self envies.

As I write this tonight on my laptop, wirelessly connecting to the planet via high-speed internet, it seems to me as though I must have dropped in on someone else’s ancient childhood memory.

 

Thanksgiving Day 2003

We had a good Thanksgiving and hope all of you did, too. It was a windy, stormy warm Panhandle Florida kind of day, building into torrents of rain through the night, followed by a strong cold front and freezing temperatures on Friday.

Here’s the menu and some recipes:

Marinated Shrimp with Capers and Dill

Roast Turkey with Herb Rub and Shitake Mushroom Gravy

Triple Cranberry Sauce

Cornbread Dressing

Hopkins Boarding House Squash Casserole

Bourbon-Laced Sweet Potatoes

Glazed Baby Turnips

Green Beans with Mustard and Thyme

Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream

 

I had been reading about brining turkey before roasting, and decided to utilize a short-cut and bought a Kosher turkey (Empire brand) rather than brining a turkey myself. The meat was very tender and moist, but too salty for my taste. Maybe I didn’t rinse it well enough before cooking. I would appreciate feedback from any of you who have had experience with brining turkey or roasting a Kosher turkey. What has your experience been?

My favorite parts of this meal (hands down) were the shrimp with capers and dill and the triple cranberry sauce. We made supper out of the shrimp on Friday. They’re great to just have around. As to the cranberry sauce, what makes it special is the combination of cranberry juice concentrate, fresh cranberries, dried cranberries, some orange juice, and just a taste of Grand Marnier.

 

Leftovers Part II: And All the Trimmings

With the twin benefits of hindsight and reflection, I realize now that Thanksgiving must have been Mother’s favorite holiday. It’s the only one I have any memory of experiencing as a child, except for that one Christmas when Mr. Kamner brought all us kids a popcorn popper — now that was some real excitement.

The smells are what I remember most. Mother made cornbread for her dressing the night before Thanksgiving. The batter sizzled when she poured it into hot grease in the oven-warmed cast iron skillet. The smell when it emerged, golden and crisp, could bring tears to the eyes of working men. Next she would sauté a big skillet full of onions, celery and green pepper and put on a pot of eggs to boil. Sometime around midnight, when most of the household was already asleep, this phase of the preparations would end.

It was the same feeling of excitement I would get the night before we went on a fishing trip. I could never quite sleep, listening for every little sound. Is it time yet? After a seemingly endless night, finally I would hear a distinctive click — the kitchen light switch — yes! Bare feet hitting the floor, I was in the kitchen, poking my young nose into the refrigerator, the oven, the stove top.

It was awesome for me to watch Mother wrestle that big blue-tinged turkey into the battered old roasting pan. She would stuff it with her cornbread dressing, fragrant with sage, saving plenty for a separate pan baked on its own. She would take a huge needle and strong thread to the turkey, stitching it together so that nothing but small steam clouds could escape. Finally, she would drape a cut piece of old sheeting material over the turkey and ladle broth over it, explaining to me that as the turkey roasted, the ends of the material would be in the cooking juices and wick up over the turkey, keeping it moist.

Once the bird was roasting, Mother could begin to concentrate on assembling “all the trimmings.” Unlike me, she was an artist with pies and cakes, and a variety made the day before would line one of the counter tops. There was always pecan, of course, and a sweet potato pie (more favored in our home than pumpkin), and usually something decorative, like a Lane cake with its gorgeous swirls of frosting. The many and varied accompaniments fade in my memory, but in that warm bright kitchen, I learned to love watching dawn arrive, and I remember my Mother being happy there, in that space, in those narrow but treasured slivers of life.

And now, each year, I make preparations the night before and arise before dawn to complete them. It wouldn’t matter whether any guests arrived to partake of the feast. Eating it is not the point for me. What I’m after is to recapture those few sunny moments between a Mother and her daughter. Perhaps that’s why Thanksgiving is my annual refurbishment of soul, my sacrament of restoration.

My own menus change with the years, but there is always one constant: I bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet and inundate the house with the smells of sautéed onion, celery and green pepper.