Moving to Gulf County, Florida was an adventure for 9-year-old me. I think I’ve written it here before, but I will always remember mom rolling down the windows of our station wagon and inhaling the salty air when we reached the coast, saying it "smelled like home." I tried my best to smell the salty air, too. I was used to the smell of North Carolina at the time, with its red clay and black soil. I still love N.C., of course, but I have to say, Port St. Joe’s air smelled a lot better, especially on days the mill and the chemical plants weren’t sharing their unique smells quite so boldly. Nothing compares to the salty breeze from the Gulf, with all its inhabitants pitching in some unique contribution.

 

We had been to St. Joe Beach many times in the past. My mother’s parents had already settled into their lovely place on the corner of Ponce de Leon Street and Alabama Avenue. We had also rented a vacation beach house a few years before, one that is still standing faithfully on its stilts on St. Joe Beach on 98, just as you’re approaching Beacon Hill. (That’s where our miniature schnauzer Reggie got is nose tweaked by a crab under the stairs leading up to the house. He left the crabs alone, or at least kept a safe distance, after that.)

 

But now we were actually getting the privilege of moving there, of living there permanently! We rented a small block house with a screened-in porch, I believe it was 123 Gulf Street on St. Joe Beach. We were just behind Ms. Barbara Eells’ home, who at the time was our P.E. teacher at Highland View Elementary School. On the other side of us was the home of a woman named Ms. Rinehart. Y’all, I know nothing about Ms. Rinehart other than that she was a smiling, quiet woman with white hair. But that wasn’t the most amazing thing about her to me and my little sister; the amazing thing was her animals.

 

When I say animals, I don’t mean she had a couple of dogs or cats. Nope. I’m talking a beautiful horse we called Rusty, who had a large fenced-in yard to stroll around on. Mrs. Rinehart owned the whole corner, so I think it was nearly an acre of land that Rusty had to keep mowed down. He got out a few times, but he was always brought back safely. We loved patting his nose over the fence.

 

She also had chickens. They didn’t stay in the fence, of course, but wandered the neighborhood at times, including our carport. where my little sister would give chase, trying to hold one. I don’t think she ever succeeded.

 

And, not so happily to us, Mrs. Rinehart had a goose. Herbie. Before that I assumed geese were as nice as ducks, but guess what? They’re not. Herbie would chase us around the neighborhood as my sister Sherrin, and our friends Michelle, Jenny (pictured) and I would ride our bikes around. Herbie would honk his anger that we dared to be on his road, chasing us as he did. When dad would return from work in his Volkswagen each day, Herbie would honk at it, flapping his wings in anger at the noisy little red Beetle. He just didn’t want anyone around for some reason.

 

One day something terrible happened. Mom rushed us out of our little house, and sent us across the street to safety. Mrs. Rinehart’s home was on fire! The smell of the burning wood structure, along with the singed pine trees and scrub oak all around it, is implanted firmly in my memory, even now.

 

Dad did his best to keep the fire from spreading to our home as the volunteer firefighters battled the blaze at hers, by continuously spraying the roof with our hose, praying that the fire would be tamed before it could reach us. We all stood there across the street in shock, not believing what we were seeing. Mrs. Rinehart was so scared for her animals, I remember. I can still see her standing there, in shock, the arms of neighborhood women wrapped around her shoulders, as she watched everything burn.

 

I believe she lost a dog in that fire, at least. I’m not sure anymore if any other animals died, since four decades have now passed. I just remember the fear, the adrenaline, the heat, and that pervasive scorched smell.

 

Eventually the fire came under control. Ms. Rinehart’s house was rebuilt. The Gulf breeze finally washed away the smell of that terrible day. I was so young that I don’t know how seriously that may have affected that sweet lady, of course, but I do know that she found a way to keep going after the tragedy, and I’m certain found other ways to have animals in her life once again. That kind of love for animals can’t be burned away.

 

Now, knowing the women of Gulf County as I do, I am certain that Mrs. Rinehart was well taken care of after the fire. I’m sure she found a place to stay, and was fed well. You know how we love to share casseroles when something awful happens here in the South.

 

I can’t imagine going through something like that fire, but I know that if I did, I’d appreciate the gestures of kindness from folks who reached out to help. What a beautiful thing it is when people rally around someone in need during the worst of times.

 

If you find yourself in a position to help someone, do it. Don’t doubt how much small gestures mean, of course, as even the baking of a casserole is meaningful to a recipient who can’t wrap his or her mind around what has happened yet, good (like the birth of a baby) or bad (like the loss of a home or loved one).

 

Here’s one of my recent favorites that you might like to try.

 

Spasagna (baked spaghetti)

 

Ingredients:

 

8 ounces of spaghetti noodles, cooked according to package directions, drained, and with some olive oil stirred in to keep them from sticking together

1 pound of ground beef, browned with one small, chopped onion (drain excess fat that is released while cooking)

2 cups marinara

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 ounces room temperature cream cheese

1 cup sour cream

3 or 4 chopped green onions

1 teaspoon parsley

1 to 2 cups shredded cheese (mozzarella, cheddar, etc.)

 

 

Optional: a couple of handfuls of fresh baby spinach

 

Method:

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9x13" baking dish with cooking spray.

 

Make meat sauce: add the marinara, garlic, and Italian seasoning to the browned ground beef. Stir in and bring to a simmer.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and sour cream (lowfat versions of both are fine). Add to this the green onions and parsley, stir in, and set aside.

 

 

Begin layering your spasagna:

 

Place half the cooked spaghetti on the bottom of the casserole dish. I kept mine going uniformly in one direction, more or less, lengthwise in the pan.

 

Top the spaghetti with half the meat sauce, then half the sour cream mixture.

Add a layer of spinach leaves, if desired, then place the second half of the pasta on top of the spinach, followed by more meat sauce, more sour cream mixture, and top with about a cup of shredded cheese. I used a mozzarella/cheddar blend.

 

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting.

 

 

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.

 

She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.