Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Seafood Extravaganza - Part 1

Dateline: Gainesville, Florida

I am just about one week into what is turning out to be a very rewarding road trip.  We departed our Maryland home in the predawn darkness this past Tuesday morning.  The temperature was in the high 20s and the sun only began to peek over the eastern horizon as we approached the northern fringe of Richmond Virginia.  Thirteen hours after our departure, and 800 miles later, we arrived in Gainesville, Florida just as the sun was dropping below the western horizon.  The temperature stood at 80F.  I have driven this route so may times over the past 37 years I think I can do it in my sleep while blindfolded.  And the farther south we drove, the greener were our surroundings.  The trees were beginning to leaf out and the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom, and the azaleas are just beginning to pop out here in north central Florida.  Not only had we driven south, we had driven into spring. Or so we thought.

The day after we arrived the skies were overcast and the temperature began to drop into the 60s and eventually into the 50s.  After sitting in the car all day on the trip down, this was a day to relax and unwind.  I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s sophomore novel, Silent House, which was originally published in Turkey on 1983 but only recently released in an English translation.  I also brought along some writing projects and notes which require some attention even when I am away from home.  So this was my original plan when we left home; a quiet and pleasant venue where I might catch up on my reading and writing. 

Our first day here in Gainesville I snuck off to my favorite sushi place for a relaxed lunch of über-fresh sashimi and tuna maki rolls served with wasabi seaweed and miso soup and Kirin beer on draft.  Little did I know that I was setting the theme for this trip.  There is also another restaurant in town that serves some of the best sushi-grade ahi tuna encrusted with white and black sesame seeds and topped with roasted red peppers, green onions and a garlic ginger soy wasabi sauce.  It is almost worth the drive down here!  So I figured this visit could evolve into a regular seafood extravaganza, if I planned it right.

The next day we drove over to Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico.  I had been there a couple years ago and fell in love with the sweet-tasting littleneck clams from the local aquiculture beds surrounding the island.  I could almost taste them on the hour or so drive to Cedar Key.  Unfortunately the weather was not the best with overcast skies, unseasonably cool temperatures, and a few drops of rain.  Still we were able to enjoy our walk along the ramshackle streets and waterfront that strikes me as a smaller and certainly more sedate version of Key West.  As bent as I was on eating clams, my mind and tastes suddenly shifted gears as we rolled into town past several signs hawking stone crab claws.  They are only available during a  short season and are often hard to find in markets and restaurants even then.  And when you do find them, they can be prohibitively expensive.  Having just arrived in Florida I had not realize that they might be available now.   Soon I was belly up to a table in a local clam bar where I slurped down the local oysters (the main diet of stone crab and therefore, in my mind, more appropriate than clams) and feasted on a pound of steamed and cracked stone crab claws served with the traditional horseradish mustard.  And all washed down with pints of a local microbrew.  Not only is the claw meat exquisite, but the fact that only the claws are harvested while the crab is returned to the water where they regenerate in new (and equally tasty) claws.  A truly sustainable seafood!  So the seafood extravaganza was well underway!

One of the main reasons I came to Florida at this time was that I was scheduled to  delivered a talk at my alma mater, Florida Southern College.  This necessitated a trip from Gainesville down to Lakeland where we also had an opportunity to visit with old friends and college chums.  Afterwards we took a side-trip over to the Gulf coast and Tarpon Springs where I visited with my mom, who is also down in Florida for a few days visiting friends and old neighbors, and where we all went to dinner at one of my favorite seafood joints in that area.  I feasted on Greek-style steamed shrimp (marinated in extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil and lemon juice before steaming) and served with a horiatiki [village] salad consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, pepperocinis, red onions, green peppers, kalamata olives, thick slabs of feta cheese, sprinkled with lemon juice and drenched in an oregano and garlic-infused red wine vinegar dressing.  OMG!  Can one ever get enough of this wonderful seafood?

This afternoon we drove out to Cross Creek, made famous in the books of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which is situated less than twenty miles southeast of here.  My first blog posting back in December 2008 was the result of a visit to the Rawlings farm and orange groves at Cross Creek -

I returned there a couple of years ago after which I wrote inter alia about a meal I enjoyed at The Yearling restaurant just up the road from the Rawlings farm -
I was disappointed last time I was there as there was no cooter (soft-shell freshwater  turtle) available; almost all of it was being sent to Japan.  So this afternoon the great cooter quest began anew.  Besides this delicacy, I was once again looking forward to digging into a platter of cracker swamp food. Disappointment, however, reigned supreme when I did not find cooter on the menu (although the restaurant’s motto still remains “Eat Mo Cooter!”  It is once again protected as an endangered species by US Fish and Wildlife.  And well it should be, I guess (it is probably endangered because it tastes so damn good!).  This disappointment did not stop me from savoring a plate full of succulent frog legs, soft-shell crab and catfish and the ubiquitous hushpuppy.    Hmmmmm, boy howdy! The "seafood" extravaganza continues!

When I planned for this now almost annual late winter sojourn in Florida, my original intention was to spend the next few weeks here in Gainesville, returning home in early March.  This is a trip I have made over the past three years; an opportunity to escape the cold and damp of a Maryland February.  Instead, I reconsidered my original options and current timetables and strategies, and changed my mind.  Instead of remaining here, I am departing tomorrow morning after less than a week in the Sunshine State.  I have decided, however, to forego one more breakneck trip home and take a few days to explore coastal Georgia and the Carolinas, areas that we by-pass virtually without notice each time we scurry up and down Interstate 95 between Washington, DC to Florida.

Tomorrow will be an easy day as I am only driving as far as Savannah.  An early start to the day will afford me an opportunity to sample the wild Georgia shrimp as I make my way north from Jacksonville via Brunswick, Jekyll and St. Simon islands and the low country between there and Savannah.  And tomorrow night I will be dining on more delicious seafood as the extravaganza continues.  More reports to follow.

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