For the past few days we’ve had the pleasure of visiting our friends, Gordon and Linda Wilson, in their rented condo in Peridido Key, Florida, just two miles from Orange Beach, Alabama. Since our arrival, we’ve been stuffing our bellies with the local fare of fresh seafood – not your ordinary frozen shrimp and limited fish choices available in our local Martin’s supermarket in Granger, Indiana. Naw! This is seafood heaven – shrimp and oyster po-boys, pecan-crusted catfish, stuffed shrimp, and the specially prepared catch of the day. Appetizers of popcorn shrimp dipped into a spicy remoulade sauce or a dozen (or two) raw oysters on the half shell, dipped in a mixture of horseradish and Tabasco sauce seduce the palate.
Any trip to the Gulf Coast is an occasion for a bacchanalian food orgy with an abundance of spicy and tangy seafood guaranteed to satisfy the most ardent carnivore. Restaurants galore dot the coast. One of the most memorable, and highly recommended, is Shipps Harbour Grill. There I had a scrumptious Grouper Pontchartrain covered in lemon butter and topped with shrimp and crawfish, served over mashed potatoes and green beans. On another day we lunched at McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, a must on one’s bucket list. The extensive menu offered many mouth-watering choices. Our friends recommended the pork chops. Melanie and I wisely chose to share this large meal of two large, thick pork cutlets, enough food for lunch at the condo the next day. But what is most extraordinary about McGuire’s are the over two million dollar bills tacked on the walls. To be sure that no one is tempted, each dollar is marked and easily traced.
Although we did not dine, nor imbibe, there, the Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar, so named due to its proximity to the Florida/Alabama border, is a singular cultural experience. It is a maze of several rooms, staggered at different levels but loosely connected as one unit, each with worn floorboards and outside walls of heavy clear plastic. Bandstands are scattered throughout, and in one room where bingo is held Monday through Friday from 1-4, brassieres hang from lines that crisscross the room. I leave it to the reader’s imagination how that came to be!
This land of perpetual sunshine and endless beaches is a haven to the cold weather wearied snowbird traveler and an escape from the dreary, bitter cold days. Relaxation and lazy quiet days are in the offing. Early morning walks or a round of golf, reading over coffee, lunch, a nap, or playing bingo or bridge, an early bird dinner special at one of he local restaurants from 4-6pm, and an evening cocktail before retiring for the evening is the snowbird schedule scripted during our brief stay. The chilly winds of our morning walks along the beach did not dampen our enthusiasm of gathering colorful seashells or watching the birds, pelicans, sanderlings or the footprints of the heron we never saw. His or her footprints led to a wildlife refuge that bordered the beach.
Our walk along the beach was replaced one morning with a walk in the backcountry at a local park in Orange Beach, AL. Along the paths were benches with inscriptions in memory of a loved one. Several were dedicated to Snowbirds of Missouri, of Minnesota, or of Illinois. License plates verify the presence of snowbirds from these areas and other northern states. There were several from Indiana, but we did not bump into anyone we know.
From Florida, we returned to New Orleans for mom’s grand 90th birthday celebration. And what a happy occasion it was. Approximately fifty immediate and extended family and longtime friends of my parents gathered at Dooky Chase, the famous black Creole restaurant in the Tremé district. For my mom, it was the perfect gift.
She delighted in having her five children, nine of ten grandchildren and six great grandchildren with her. My son, Paul ,and his wife, Katie, spent the Christmas holidays with her. Speeches from me and my brother, Rhaoul, extolled her virtues. Not to be outdone, she in turn spoke glowingly of her love for her family.
Leah Chase, the owner and chef, just a few days earlier, had celebrated her 93rd birthday. To celebrate her and her legendary restaurant, the Times-Picayune, published a front page story of Mrs. Chase. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama dined there. The evening of my mom’s dinner party, I visited with Mrs. Chase in the kitchen. I had not seen her in several years. She was a bit more diminutive than I remember, but that same beautiful, serene face with a broad smile, all framed with curly white hair, has never changed. In the kitchen she was preparing vats of gumbo for the governor’s ball to be held a few days later. As she chopped sausages, we spoke of the time when Dooky’s was the only fine restaurant where blacks were able to dine elegantly. We laughed at the remembrance of the Shirley Temples she served to the hordes of young prom goers. Parents were comforted in knowing that Leah Chase kept a watchful eye over us. And she made sure that we had the proper dining decorum.