Southern Penicillin

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Blog friends who know me from my old blogs written in my real name will recognize this phrase: southern penicillin. Its basic components are a baked sweet potato, some kind of dark leafy greens cooked in a broth (my seasoning of choice is a smoked turkey leg, a strip of Kombu, chopped onion and garlic), and turnip roots, yellow squash, speckled butter beans or whatever other veggies ring your bell and are available. And a pan of cornbread cooked in a Lodge cast iron skillet.

Our local Publix grocery store has just had a $5 million makeover. My favorite part is their new and improved produce department, with all new coolers, lighting, and best of all an expanded greens and organics section. The department manager, Travis, came up to me the other day when he saw I was picking out a pretty bundle of extremely fresh-looking organic collard greens. In his hand was a very dark green, ruffle-leaved ball of organic kale. It was fragrant and beautiful. He knew I would have to buy some. The kale went into the pot with the collards and made the most amazing pot liquor. Tom got a cup of the strained pot liquor to drink along with his veggies. I put both greens and that power broth into a big mug. Tom has always loved this type of supper, but now, while we’re in  “chemo cuisine” mode, he craves it.

Simple food, complex benefits.

“Cancer Cuisine” for Everybody

Rebecca Katz has an addictive recipe for salmon salad with caper salsa. It uses canned wild red salmon, minced onion, lemon juice, dill, pepper and capers. I’ve gotten hooked on the salt-packed (vs. brine) capers. It’s in her book, One Bite at a Time, another “cancer cuisine” cookbook. All I know is, it tastes great.

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First time to try it, I hollowed out a 5-grain Italian roll, smeared on a little mayonnaise, and stuffed it with the salmon salad with cucumber slices sandwiched in between. I was much too impatient for such folderol today, though, and simply spooned some into a white ramekin, grabbed a bag of Naked Pita Chips and ate at my desk.

Lunch at the Marina Oyster Barn

Just outside the picture window of east-side Pensacola’s iconic Marina Oyster Barn, where the “n” on Barn always feels like a mistake but isn’t, a huge brown pelican dives into Bayou Texar with an attention-getting, massive splash. The bird’s appearance is arresting on its own, but when it hits the water like a shot and comes up with a live fish which it proceeds to swallow, you can guarantee I don’t move from the window until that particular show is over.

Buck and I grin at each other like teenagers. We count more than a dozen of the astonishing birds between the bridge and Rooks Marina, the most either of us has ever seen there. They look glossy, well-fed, and strong.

Kim comes around with her blond ponytail and big smile. “Hi guys, it’s been awhile! Do you know what you want?”

That was easy. It’s the second reason we come: fried mullet, cole slaw and cheese grits. We pick up the menu and note a few items have changed since we were there last, then order what we always do.

The first reason we come is to sit at a picture window almost in the bayou, watch the comings and goings at the marina, and the birds, and folks tying up their boats at the dock to come in for lunch, and sometimes run into old (and I do mean old) friends from past lives.

1-IMG_8515We watched this fine heron from a window in our booth. We took the picture through slats in the blinds. He seems philosophical watching the pelicans and their flashy hubbub. But the heron has his ways. And except for his skinny long legs, he doesn’t look like he’s going hungry.

On the way out, we stop to chat with Frank, the kindly host and manager who to me is a quintessential part of the M.O.B. experience. His eyes light up when he sees us. We shake hands. I put my arms around him in a light hug, and feel the years in his thin shoulder blades. We notice later that he seems to know everyone, and has an affectionate moment with them, coming or going. You’ve probably seen long-time restaurateur’s like this, too. They’re a special breed. It’s a tough business, but I think it must get in your blood, and if you’re good at it, like Frank, it’s because you are have a near metaphysical bond with your customers. It’s a pleasure to watch an old pro at work. He’s that rare breed: a sincere politician, one who isn’t running for office and where the smile on his lips matches the smile in his eyes.

The Gulf of Mexico across two bridges is grand, but give me the small bayous and lunch at the Marina Oyster Barn every time.

Oysters on the half shell at Marina Oyster Barn, Pensacola (from an earlier visit)
Oysters on the half shell at Marina Oyster Barn, Pensacola (from an earlier visit)
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View of the bridge across Bayou Texar (pronounced tay-har) from our window at the Marina Oyster Barn in Pensacola, September 21, 2013.

Yellowfin Tuna with Grilled Onions and Spinach

Sometimes a day just comes together and comes out even in a delightful way: a morning of writing on a new fiction short story that had my pen flying across the yellow legal pad with an excitement for writing I haven’t felt for a while, a veggie lunch with Buck, a self-indulgent hair appointment, a fly-by in the grocery store for tuna, spinach, potatoes and a mild onion, dinner, and fragrant clean sheets on our bed.

Night all. Sweet dreams.

Comfort Food, Smoking, Booze and Grief

My favorite food-related magazine is Saveur. I stop subscribing to it every few years,  almost ritually, just as I did a few months ago, and then I run across some article I tore out of an old one before tossing it and the article is so extremely damn fine I wonder why on earth I ever failed to renew my subscription and wind up going to their web site and resubscribing — like I am just about to do — again.

The particular ripped out story that reminded me why Saveur is so worth the 20 bucks a year was written by Sandra Tsing Loh, Los Angeles author of Mother on Fire (Three Rivers Press, 2008), Pushcart Prize winner, pop-culture diva, pianist, on-again-off-again media darling and extremely damn fine writer.

It’s called “At Sea in the Valley,” and you can read it here, in Saveur.com’s archive to issue No. 127. It’s about a joint in Los Angeles called the Oyster House.

Blueberry Bliss

This old lost post from Mary Beth's kitchen pulls me back to the Little Island House. Kim and Charlene rented out the top floor,too, then, and it was filled with plants and wonderful books.

Renting a cottage on Maine's Mount Desert Island is one room in my own personal heaven. Stay in Kim and Charlene Strauss's The Little Island House or Jeanne Fernald's The Captain's Quarters in Bass Harbor for a special experience. Enjoy your morning coffee with warm sourdough and Blueberry Bliss jam, surrounded by dahlias, morning glories, rose hedges, and sweet peas clambering over old, stacked lobster traps, while you watch the extraordinary tides ebb and flow. The Little Island House actually becomes an island during high tide. Pure magic.

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The Little Island House

Bass Harbor, Maine

 

There will be plenty of time for lobsters and sweet corn after a day of hiking in the Acadia National Park. But on the first night, do yourself a favor. Find a big cast iron skillet — don't worry — I think it's a rule: they have to have one in a Maine coast cottage rental (along with a lobster pot) — and roast a chicken while you watch the sun set over Bass Harbor.

Rest the bird on thickly sliced Vidalia onions — available at Sawyer's Market in nearby Southwest Harbor — and stuff it with a large bunch of fresh thyme, an entire head of garlic sliced crosswise in half, a little salt and pepper and a whole lemon, cut in half. Season the outside and rub in some olive oil, then bake at 425 for about 1 1/2 hours. This recipe is based on Ina Garten's recipe for Perfect Roast Chicken from her marvelous book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

Meanwhile, find another oven-going pan, toss some whole new potatoes with the freshest carrots you can find and a little olive oil; roast them for the last 40 minutes.

While the chicken is roasting, head outside with good whiskey, some warm whole grain bread, one of many excellent local Cheddars, and hopefully a romantic companion. Find a good spot on the rocks to sit and watch the tide come in, the gulls, the cormorants with their wings outstretched in the wind, the lights and steam rising from lobster pots at Thurston's Lobster Pound across the way, and just gleam for sheer joy in the moment.

Memory Fish

It was 7:30 straight up when the phone rang. I was peeling a large red papaya, thin skin curling back over itself as I drew the short paring knife’s blade slowly down, imagining a bow drawn over a violin. Music was in the air, and the ringing phone a discordant intrusion.

“Miss Beth, you got some coffee?” Harold’s voice boomed out from the speaker of the phone, which I had punched with a papaya juice-stained finger.

“Nope, not yet,” I said. “I meant to, but I’ve been writing.”

“Running? You say you been running?” Harold sounded stunned.

“No,” I said. “Writing. Like a book. Writing.”

“Well,” he continued, “I got a little care package for you, if you and that old man are going to be around.”

“Come on,” I said. “I need some coffee, too. It’ll be ready when you get here.”

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Harold came in with several plastic grocery store bags and a tightly capped plastic bowl.  He grew the onions, squash and cucumbers in his garden. His wife, Louise, grew the tomatoes and bell peppers in flower pots in their yard. As we drank our coffee and talked, a pungent raw onion smell began to permeate the kitchen.

Harold had not made a move to open the plastic bowl. I’m sure he knew he could outlast my curiosity. He was right.

I pulled the bowl toward me, and asked, “What’s in here?”

“I don’t know if you two eat these,” Harold said coyly. “My boy and me caught them in Miflin Lake over in Baldwin County. Them’s Alabama fish.”

By this time, I had pulled the top off the bowl. Ten pretty little bluegills (bream) sprinkled with ice chips nestled inside. I pulled out three of them to make a picture.

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When my brother, Wally, and sister, Flo, see this photo, I know it will take them back to central Florida, cane pole fishing, and neighborhood cats circling the backyard table where Daddy cleaned his catch. I smell the not unpleasant fresh fish smell, remember the click sound of scales, and hear water running from a garden hose.

Tonight, we’ll dredge the bluegill in cornmeal and fry them in peanut oil. Buck hired himself out as a ten-year old fishing guide on the Escambia River long years ago. He and I will chew our memories slowly tonight, savoring every bite.

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Late at night, I read tomorrow’s headlines from The New York Times by the light of my Blackberry. When I’m driving in the car during the day, I listen to National Public Radio for the news. But when I want to plug into the visceral interpretations of rural everyman, there’s no source like Harold. If the NYT is the brain, he is the guts, and his opinions hold equal weight with me.