I was looking recently through some of the columns I’ve written for this paper over the last several years, and I came across the one below and thought I would share it with you again this week. Why? Because as I read it, it was like visiting our beautiful home, from Port St. Joe to Mexico Beach to Wewahitchka, and it stirred my emotions a bit. I think the appropriate word for what I felt is “bittersweet” And maybe tack on to that, “gratitude."
It was bittersweet because some of the things I shared were such fun memories: Another visit to The Shell Shack, as well as a day at the Tupelo Honey Festival, back in 2017. Sweet memories!
The bitter part, of course, is that the Shell Shack is gone, another casualty of Hurricane Michael. But I suggest that we all do our best to remember it, to be grateful we had the opportunity to go there for fresh seafood, kitschy shell souvenirs, and fun t-shirts, not to mention friendly conversation. I hope the Shell Shack is rebuilt soon, and if it is, I’ll be there with shells on. In the meantime, let’s just remember it together, and take a walk through the Tupelo Honey Festival, too, while we’re at it:
May 2017: “Where we love is home - home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes
The past week was one of those treasured times that I didn’t want to end, but that seem to proceed at double the speed of any normal week. I had the pleasure of spending over a week with two of my three sons and my sister, on “our beach,” as we refer to St. Joe Beach. Our home.
I was determined to make the most of every second we had there before heading back to work in Texas. I didn’t get everything done that I wanted to, as time just flew by, but it was wonderful anyway, not only because of the beautiful setting of our beach home, but also because of the equally beautiful people who make up the community surrounding Port St. Joe. I was reminded, as always, of just how special, not to mention delicious, Northwest Florida is. I hope you don’t mind if I brag on it a little bit.
First, we visited the Shell Shack on Mexico Beach to get some fresh red snapper, grouper, and shrimp to make our meals with. The Shell Shack is special to me because it’s been there for as long as I can remember. I remember that I loved going there as a child with my grandmother. I even think at one time they sold turquoise jewelry, or had a jewelry maker in house for some special event, perhaps, many years back. My mom and Grammy each bought a bracelet and ring, which my sister and I now have.
In addition to the amazing, fresh-off-the-boat seafood, they have those fun, kitsch-y souvenirs, things like animals made from shells, and funny t-shirts, that I am inexplicably drawn to. We visit every time we’re in town, because it’s like visiting a childhood friend.
When I got home with our seafood, I grabbed a large bowl, a small knife and a grocery bag, and took the shrimp with me outside. I cleaned the shrimp out on the back porch overlooking the Gulf (we are staying in Gulf Aire 8251 this week), using the method my parents had taught me years before. Some folks don’t find it necessary to remove the “vein” from each shrimp, but for me, it’s a must. As I sat there doing that, I chatted with my sister about the many times mom had sat us down at the kitchen table, which she would have covered with newspaper, and had us clean the shrimp dad had brought home. We, of course, think about mama even more than usual when we’re home on our beach.
When I cooked the shrimp later, along with some of the fish, I used mom’s method. Her recipe: Plain flour piled on a plate or bowl, with some garlic powder, salt and pepper added in. I gently tossed the shrimp in the mixture, and fried them for just a couple of minutes in some hot oil, then drained them on paper towels.
I used the same method for the fish, this time adding a bit of Tony Chachere's blackening seasoning to the flour mixture before dredging the filets in it. It’s simple and perfect, and better than any heavy batter one could use, in my opinion.
I paired the amazing seafood with some smoked Gouda grits, spicy baked beans, and cold, sweet tea, and everyone, myself included, devoured it.
On Saturday, Sherrin and I visited Wewahitchka, where the Tupelo Honey Festival was being held. Talk about fun! We had grouper sandwiches made in a booth by some lovely church folk. We had boiled peanuts, fished out of a huge pot that was perched upon a gas burner. Those peanuts were simmering away, filling the air with the salty, delicious smell that so many of us here in the South adore.
The festival marked my first visit to Lake Alice Park, believe it or not, and if you’ve never been there either, make it a point to do so while the weather is nice. The view of the lake is lovely, and it’s surrounded by beautiful old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Pack a picnic and enjoy an afternoon there; I think you’ll be happy with your day. We certainly was.
The people-watching at the festival was spectacular, as folks from all over the southeast were there, which was made obvious by the variety of license plates on the cars we spotted all over town. Of course, I came home with some of that culinary gold known as Tupelo honey. It’s as good as everyone says it is, believe me. We use it in recipes, in peanut butter sandwiches, and on hot biscuits. It’s perfectly sweet and tasty. Thanks to all the beekeepers out there who work to get this treasure to its adoring public!
On the last day of our visit, I was sad as always not to have another week to spend enjoying our beloved Gulf County home. We didn’t get to see all the people we had hoped to see. We didn’t get to spend nearly enough time on the beach (there is never enough time on the beach for me, honestly). But the people we were indeed able to see, like my dad and our beloved lifelong friend, Laurel Riley, made our hearts glow with love and gratitude.
Being able to feed our dad a few home-cooked meals blessed my heart. And talking for hours with our childhood friend on a Gulf-Aire balcony overlooking the beach on our last night in town reminded us, without a doubt, that we were home, and we loved every second.
How blessed we are to have the people and places that exist along “The Forgotten Coast.” I buy the t-shirts that proclaim the coast’s nickname, but in reality, I could never forget the people and places that make up that special area of the world. Each visit home serves to strengthen my love for the place and the people who live there. If you are so blessed to call Northwest Florida home, be mindful of its uniqueness, and be grateful you are a part of that special community.
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 young adult sons who can eat twice their weight in fried shrimp. You can find more of her recipes and writing at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.