What Southern Folks Eat: Cement block houses and a St. Joe Beach baptism
People have often said that there is no place like home. They say home is where your heart is. I believe there is truth in these sayings, honestly, and I’ll tell you why.
Some of my earliest memories of living in Florida happened on St. Joe Beach, in and around a small, very simple cement block house near Hwy 98. It was painted gray with white trim, and it had a double carport for us girls to play on. It was built in 1958. It’s still there today, even after 62 years of standing in not only the hot sun, but also the battering winds and rain that came with all the tropical storms and hurricanes that have blown through northwest Florida over the decades. Even Michael did not take it down, though, certainly, he may have damaged the inside.
We moved into the house in 1976. Inside that little cement block house my sister and I made up short plays to perform for our own amusement and for our patient mama. We watched Saturday morning cartoons and ate cereal while our parents slept, and on “cold” winter mornings, we snuggled up in front of its old gas heaters. We made friends with the kids across the street, Michelle, Jenny, and Greg, and rode bikes with them, played in our yards together, and visited inside each others’ homes. It was a great neighborhood!
At the time, the porch wasn’t enclosed, as it is now; it was screened and had a swing on it, and some lawn chairs. That’s where Preacher William Smith from Beach Baptist Chapel came to visit us soon after we arrived in Gulf County that year. He sat on the porch with us to talk about the community, the church, and summer camp for kids. I was most excited about that last one! Because of him, I was able to go to the Northwest Florida Baptist Camp for many years in a row, another place populated with simple cement block buildings, for Girls in Action Camp with other elementary school-aged girls. We sang about Jesus, took art classes, ventriloquism classes, and other fun things. We swam together in the big pool, and had vespers at night near the bay.
That camp was sold some time ago, and is now called “Under the Oaks Park” in the city of Parker, where people can take walks, play on playground equipment, and have picnics. I still love to visit that beautiful place from time to time, where so many memories were made in my childhood, even though our little cement block cabins and chapel are now gone.
Not many months after that first visit with Preacher Smith, he baptized me in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which was just a half block from our little gray house. At that time, in the mid-1970s, our church didn’t have a baptismal pool, and I am so thankful for that. It was a special time for me, and I still cherish the memory of being dunked by my pastor into my favorite place in all of creation, the waves on St. Joe Beach. It was perfect. Afterward we trudged back up the sand dunes and went home to get into dry clothes and talk about the lovely thing that had happened.
We moved out of the house a few years later because it was a rental, not for sale, and bought a place closer to the church. Though we loved our new neighborhood, we always missed our neighborhood friends and our little gray house.
My sis and sons and I stopped in front of the little old house to take a picture of it a couple days ago. Its last owners painted it light blue, and added a sweet white picket fence around the front yard. But it has sat there empty since Hurricane Michael happened 19 months ago, as have so many in our area. I’m sad for it, because I have such fond memories of living there. Were I a wealthy woman, I’d offer to buy that sweet little cement block house and restore it, not tear it down, as I am sure many people would. Why? Because it would be so wonderful to take care of the place that sheltered me for several meaningful childhood years, to restore it to strength and vitality, and to fill it once again with the laughter and love of a family. I can’t really do that, but I sure hope someone will. Sweet memories await.
Looking back on that visit with the preacher on our porch, I am reminded that nothing tastes better when you’re porch sitting on a summer day than a glass of cold lemonade. Here’s a great recipe for lemonade that reminds me of the kind Chick-fil-A sells.
1 1/2 cups lemon juice from freshly squeezed lemons
1 cup cane sugar
5 to 5 1/2 cups water, preferably filtered
Combine the lemon juice and water in an adequately-sized pitcher. (You’ll end up with just under two quarts of liquid.)
Use a whisk to stir in the sugar, continuing to whisk the liquid until all the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate before serving, and serve over ice with lemon slices for decoration, if you’d like. It’s also good mixed half and half with your favorite iced tea, Arnold Palmer style.
Make sure to use the best lemons for your lemonade; according to the BBC’s Good Food page, here’s how to get the best ones:
“Look for unblemished, firm lemons that feel heavy for their size and have no tinges of green (which indicates that they're underripe). Avoid very pale lemons, as they are older and will contain less juice. The best lemons for juicing or using for wedges are those with smooth, thin skin.”
I hope this inspires you to make some happy porch-sitting, lemonade-sipping memories this summer in your own neighborhood. Enjoy!
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.