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.

Patriarch

BUCK REGALED ME WITH ALL SORTS OF ENTERTAINING STORIES when we were courting thirty years ago.  “Courting” is one of those sweetly anachronistic words that is fun to type, rich in images from an earlier century. Heh.  I laugh, but as a matter of record our courtship and marriage did happen in the latter third of the previous century.

One of his stories involved a beautiful blonde-headed toddler of a cousin named Marianne. Her parents lived in Washington, D.C. and little eight year old Buck, five years her senior, had come to visit. They fell in love, in the way of young children, and romped all over his Aunt Marguerite’s and Uncle Muegge’s house until young Buck outdid himself trying to impress Marianne and went sailing off a second story landing and bounced off the wood floor below, alarming the adults and bruising more than his ego.

Marianne lives on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina now. Like Buck, she has grown children and grandchildren. She lost her beloved Jon last March after 44 years of marriage. Let’s just say I cannot imagine and do not want to ever become a member of that club.

In a brave, intentional effort to emerge from a chrysalis of grief, Marianne came to see us last week, a side trip on her way to spend a week with old friends of hers and Jon’s in a resort on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast. We took a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood Market one day to fetch cocktail crab claws and fillets of fresh red snapper, went to lunch at a wonderful new restaurant, IRON, another, but mostly we sat at a small round dining table in the Longleaf Bar and Grill right here at home and talked until the dinner, wine and ice cream were long gone and the short, fat candles sputtered. We brought out fragile old photo albums. We laughed, cried, and marveled together at the unexpected twists and turns on the road between childhood and old age. My fingers linger when I type “old age.” It feels presumptuous; inaccurate. Do I include myself? I don’t think 61 is “old.” Buck at 75 is not “old.” Where is the line? Is one old at 85? I know people whom I consider old (as in old fogies,not old souls) at 43.

And yet, a time may come, with longevity, when one is the eldest member of a particular blood-tied clan. I rather suspect it may be a peculiar, lonely feeling.  Saturday morning, as Marianne was about to leave, Buck said, “Well, I sure don’t feel like it, but I guess I’m the patriarch.”

Marianne said, “You sure are!”

A Cow, a Dog, and a Woman

This tickled my funny bone. It’s from our “North end of the county” online newspaper. It involves a woman chasing a Boston Bull terrier who is chasing a cow across four lanes of traffic. “Reporters” on the scene got pictures. The comments are probably the best part.

Veggies at the Gate

It's a lot more fun to find a cooler full of fresh greens and tender crookneck squash than what I found at the gate on January 6, 2004. Click Strange Goings On to read about what I found at the gate that Pensacola morning.

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Buck and I have been buying veggies from Regan Streit at Cantonment's Jaseegan Farms. Regan emails his regular customers once a week to let us know what is available and what the prices are. We email him back with our order. The first week was turnip greens (with beautiful, tender, sweet roots attached) and a dozen yard eggs. The second week was mustard greens, eggs and blackberries. This week, as you can see, was a bundle of collards and several pounds of squash.

Click over to The Longleaf Bar & Grill to see what we did with the veggies.

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Buck & TwitchyB 6-25-08 at Skopelos.

Turning 57 wasn't tough at all. I have a grateful heart for all the many unmerited gifts in my life, and most especially for the stunning love of my darling Buck and the love and affection of all of my family and friends. (Photo taken by Stacey at our favorite Pensacola restaurant, Skopelos on the Bay.)

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Chef and owner Gus Silivos outdid himself with this lovely fresh grilled amberjack, topped with baby shrimp in a saffron cream sauce. Yum. Oh — and I almost forgot. The fish was on a bed of fried baby artichoke hearts which we dubbed "Greek popcorn" — gosh, they were good. 

Gotta go. We're back home, in our soft clothes, and the chocolate ice cream awaits.

Sweet dreams, y'all.

Skopelos on the Bay

Some of our favorite restaurants, like Jamie’s and The Marina Oyster Barn, were creamed in Hurricane Ivan. They have not been able to reopen yet. I ran into one of Jamie’s servers at another restaurant Saturday night, and was glad to see he was working, but it was yet another reminder of the wind-wrought displacement of people.

Another of our favorites, and really, the one that feels most like home, is Skopelos on the Bay. It was founded by Paul Silivos more than 35 years ago. Paul now spends part of his retirement at his birthplace, the Greek island of Skopelos, and some time at the restaurant visiting with guests — almost all of whom, including Buck and I, consider Paul their friend, as well.

Gus Silivos owns and manages Skopelos now. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institue of America, a highly talented chef, and — I think — the best staff trainer in town.

On a recent visit, Gus was serving a classic Greek style red snapper dish that was one of the best we’ve ever eaten. The fresh-caught thick fillet was covered with sliced tomatoes and onions. There was some olive oil, garlic I think, and maybe a little paprika and lemon drizzled on top. Then it was baked and finished in the broiler so that the onion had some good-looking brown bits on top.

We picked up a couple of swordfish steaks from the newly re-opened Joe Patti’s Seafood, thinking about grilling them. Buck saw one lonely tomato on the kitchen counter and said, “Hey, I’ll bet that swordfish would be good the way Gus did the snapper. Think you can?”

Oh, yeah. All in all, I like the red snapper better, but this was a great fish dish, too. Try it. If you like a light tomato touch, it’s scrumptious.

Marinate the swordfish in some olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and black pepper. Slice the best tomato you can find on top and add some sliced red onion. Drizzle on a little more of the marinade. Dust with paprika and baked covered with foil for about 20 minutes, then broil for 5 or 10, depending on thickness of the fish.

Quite nice with a scoop of couscous and sauteed snow peas.

 

The Ivan Album

Pine pulling apart from storm

This old longleaf pine was literally pulled apart by Hurricane Ivan’s winds. And yet it stands.

Another  collided so violently with a nearby falling oak that a divot was scalloped out into the quick, exposing the tree’s heart.

Walking over the cleared roads and firelines today, awed by the graphic images of death and rebirth, I kept thinking back to the day I walked over the property following a prescribed burn. Everywhere I looked there was black soot and burned brush. The fire smell was in my clothes and in my hair. I remember reminding myself that we had done this as part of an overall management plan for the forest, but I had the visceral reaction of experiencing it as a disaster.

Within a few weeks, colonies of ferns emerged from the ashes. Within several months, the pitcher plant prairie doubled in size and was dramatically lush and colorful. Pine seeds were stimulated to germinate by the fire. Today we have a huge crop of new little volunteer trees joining the containerized planted seedlings which are jumping up out of the ground.

Nature is what it is. Does what it does. Sometimes our piss-ant little design schemes work out for awhile. But it’s best to stay loose, stand back, watch, and cover our faces in wonder.

Most of these photos show some of the tree damage at Longleaf from Hurricane Ivan. Storm-spawned tornadoes snapped huge old longleaf pines like twigs, twisting them and using their tops in some cases to knock down an oak.

A few of the photos are from downtown Pensacola. Fortunately, not nearly all of it is rubble as these pictures might seem to suggest. Just next to a smashed storefront, I visited Reynolds Music House and they had no damage at all, all of those fabulous pianos safe behind a row of steel shutters which were put up to cover the store’s series of plate glass windows.

And what you don’t see amongst the ruined trees are the thousands of baby trees we have had planted over the past two years, coming up strong. It’s hard to see the old trees this way, but the silver lining is that the new generations coming up now have more sun and space and will grow more quickly, beneficiaries of nature’s brutally efficient clear cut.

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A Perfect Pensacola Day

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Jamie’s is a wonderful small restaurant in the historic district. Buck and I recently rediscovered it. Today, we drove into town for lunch there. Our server, Carl, was as enthusiastic about my Waldorf salad as I was, and Buck’s sesame crusted salmon with cucumber vinaigrette was fresh and delicious. After lunch, we took a half hour turn around the block, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze.

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Half Shell with Stripes

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Luminous Bon Secour Bay oysters on the half shell, striped from the irresistible sunshine slipping through the blinds at the Marina Oyster Barn, Pensacola, Florida.

The Marina Oyster Barn is a local hang-out, still crowded at two in the afternoon. It’s friendly, low-key and a happy kind of noisy.

This is a northwest Florida winter day in top form: sixty degrees, raw oysters and fried mullet, seagull watching, boaters easing in and out of their moorings. Ahhhh.