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GOURMET HIGHWAY: A PRAYER FOR THE GULF

By Doc Lawrence.

Apalachicola – A visit here is like planning a wake. No matter how you hate thinking this could be the last time to enjoy such natural beauty, there’s no denying the fear of terrible things not yet seen but looming nevertheless. I had to get away from the frivolities and superficial things that dominate popular culture in large cities like Atlanta. The journey here takes me back to what composer Randy Newman coined his “baby days.” Spiritually, my life began here.

From the great Gulf fishing village of Carrabelle over to places like Destin – these places have historically been popular with Atlanta travelers who came to vacation and fish. My first day in a boat on the Gulf waters was during a weekend in Carrabelle with my father. I was an excited skinny eight year-old who could never imagine that this could be temporary. Never mind that I got seasick and remained in agony until we reached the docks just before sunset. I knew I was coming back.

Other visits provided a taste of Apalachicola oysters, still my favorite bivalve. It’s the only substance I’ve been addicted to, though I admit a dedicated penchant for accompaniments like beer and the great French white Burgundy, Chablis. More delights were available at the seafood shacks along the Gulf coast. Smoked mullet and triggerfish to this day haunt me with flavors unique to this part of Florida. The best places were run down with chain-smoking customers, heavy beer drinkers all with a ready smile if you were brave enough to smile first. Jukeboxes played Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Looking,” and Elvis’ “Baby, Let’s Play House,” a ditty I never heard on Atlanta radio stations that gratuitously banned it to protect kids.

When I was 17, I entered FSU, leaving home for good. In my mind, I became a citizen of the Sunshine State and when I got a little homesick, the Gulf was just 26 miles due south at a place called Alligator Point. There were restaurants there owned by the descendants of Greek immigrants where stuffed flounder was served. Florida lobster called bulldozers was cooked on a charcoal grill. One special place served cocktails where I had my first, a concoction called an Old Fashion Presbyterian. I also ordered one for my date. Angels sang above the blue Gulf waters.

The Spanish Trace goes on a line from the Atlantic coast of North Florida meandering to New Orleans. It was an important trade route and the coast here was settled in part to get the fruits of the ocean to the inland markets. Railroad tracks and highways still follow the ancient path. My journey along this coastal expanse took on meaning when I joined a rock and roll band. We played then strange sounding music recorded by folks like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed. It was raunchy with a beat for dancing the erotic dirty boogie. Most of the gigs were in coastal honkytonks with an occasional graduation dance or a sorority weekend on Dog Island, a white sand covered preserve still accessible only by boat.

Graduation, Vietnam, marriages, and wanderlust ended the rock music days, but I came back to fish regularly, catching local delights like scamp, snapper and redfish. Recently, I took my son and grandson to nearby St. George Island to fish and eat seafood for a week and recall almost every precious moment.

Everything from here to New Orleans is original America. The Spanish were amazing explorers and much of their civilization remains if you look for it. The culture showcases architecture, accents, folkways and devotion to life’s basics. However, the heritage that really defines the entire Gulf Coast region is the cuisine. Oysters prepared every way imaginable, gumbos made with secret spices, seafood soups, fried battered fish, the fried grouper sandwich and legendary hush puppies.

America will not be the same place if this is destroyed. More than one wise observer has called the brooding mass of growing black goo in the Gulf as “America’s Chernobyl.” I have no axe to grind and only want to see a miracle manifest to defend this amazing but fragile culture and natural treasure. I pray that my grandson, now 16, doesn’t have to someday tell his kids what once was ours. With all our technology, cleverness, eloquence and windbag spin increasingly appearing lame, are we now unable to preserve and protect? Divine intervention is needed.

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