Like most people who grew up in Port St. Joe, our family spent a lot of time driving over to Panama City for things that St. Joe didn’t offer in the 1970s and ’80s. If we wanted to see a movie, there wasn’t an option for us other than driving to PC, for example. We went to Panama City to buy things like school shoes, Easter dresses, and records. And much of that was easily done in one place: The Panama City Mall.
When we wanted to shop for clothes, we would drive over with our parents to shop at Gayfers, the store that eventually became Dillards. It was, of course, in the mall, which seemed to my pre-adolescent self a magical place. It had opened the year we had moved to Florida to live near our grandparents, 1976. It was there I saw the clothes, makeup and shoes that I was drawn to when I pored over the pages of Seventeen Magazine’s back-to-school issue each August. I absolutely loved being there and seeing those things in person in our mall.
There was a waterfall feature in one area of the mall, and there was a little walkway made of “stone” that you could walk through that was situated behind the waterfall. As kids we loved looking through the plexiglass window, which made us feel we were actually inside the waterfall. More than once over the years I would stroll in there to check out the waterfall window and interrupt a young couple who had stepped inside the cozy little spot for a smooch. Oops!
It was near there, under the sunny atrium, that Santa’s workshop would set up each December for families who wanted to take pictures with the jolly old elf. I enjoyed seeing all the kiddos in their Christmas sweaters and dresses waiting for their turn to meet Santa, just itching to get out of those clothes, really, because it typically wasn’t very cold in NWFL at Christmas, as you know. But they sure did look cute! I bet some of you reading this have some of those pictures in an album or scrapbook somewhere.
The mall was also home to Morrison’s Cafeteria. We shared many family meals there over the years, most frequently driving over on Sunday after church. They had great fried chicken, I remember, and the best strawberry pie in town. I would eat my meat and vegetables just so that I would have permission to have some of that sweet, beautiful pie. Mama didn’t make strawberry pie at home, because why bother when the perfect one was just 30 minutes away at Morrison’s?
As the years went by, I became a college student, studying for my associate’s degree at Gulf Coast Community College, or “Harvard by the Sea” as we fondly referred to it. I remember one day my friends and I felt especially spring-feverish, so we decided we’d skip class and head over to the mall. I’ll never forget the way my stomach flipped when we were brazenly sitting in the food court when we should have been in psychology class, and I looked up to see my mother and Grammy in the distance, walking toward us, chatting and carrying their shopping bags, presumably deciding what they wanted for lunch.
I was a pretty good kid and had never skipped class in high school, so doing so at that moment, boldly going to the mall, and then possibly being caught red-handed, was kind of a big deal for me. I slumped down in my chair and hoped Mama and Grammy wouldn’t notice me sitting amongst the group of college girls, chatting and laughing and eating instead of learning about adolescent egocentrism in psych class.
They didn’t see me. I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to school for the rest of the afternoon. And I didn’t skip school again … well, at least not until Tambria’s dad bought here a brand new Chrysler LeBaron convertible and she suggested we all pile into it and head over to Panama City Beach. I think the drive over the Hathaway Bridge with the wind blowing in our hair was probably worth it.
As I look back, I realize that for many people, the mall played no small part in the culture of our area at that time, as we had so few other stores in town to choose from. It was an ideal hang out place for young friends or people on first dates. Every holiday was celebrated in some way there, and there were concerts and fashion shows and fundraisers nearly every weekend. It was a hub of community and commercialism, and now that it’s gone, I feel sad just knowing the building that I and many of you shared friendships in, made memories in, and invested money in our community in, is damaged and nearly empty, thanks to a dreadful hurricane.
Like everything else we’ve lost, it will likely eventually be replaced by something newer and nicer. But I’ll never forget the days I spent with family and friends in the Panama City Mall.
If you are like me and loved Morrison’s strawberry pie, here’s a recipe that is nearly the same as theirs. I love to make it, not only because it is so delicious, but also because of the memories of those days it evokes. I hope you like it, too.
Fresh strawberry pie
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
3 tablespoons strawberry gelatin mix
1 pint fresh strawberries
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
1 pie crust, baked and cooled
In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine sugar, cornstarch, and dry gelatin mix by stirring or whisking well. Add water, stirring continuously and cooking until the mixture becomes thick and clear. Set aside and let cool.
Wash and hull strawberries, then cut in half and arrange over pre-baked pie crust.
When filling is cool, pour evenly over strawberries.
Chill pie until ready to serve. Serve topped with real whipped cream.
To make your own delicious whipped cream, buy a pint of heavy whipping cream, and chill a bowl and the whisk attachment of your mixer in the freezer for a few minutes. Then, add a cup of the cream to the chilled bowl, and begin whipping it at high speed. Gently sprinkle in a bit of sugar (just a tablespoon will do), a bit at a time while you're whipping the cream, to give it time to dissolve completely.
You can also add 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract if you'd like, a little at a time. When it becomes whipped and peaks form, stop mixing. If you go any further, you'll have sweet vanilla-flavored butter.
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 substantially taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.