Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Southern Hospitality

Bromiliads Growing on Mangrove Trees - Florida Everglades 

Whether your culinary preferences lean towards haute cuisine or burgers and beer; whether you have a full pocketbook or a near empty one, in almost everyone’s life there are those occasions when you step into a restaurant not knowing what to expect and leave having had a surprising, unforgettable meal. I am not, by any means, highly world traveled, nor do I have a pocketbook that has allowed me to dine in Michelin starred restaurants. I have, however, had several unforgettable dining experiences. Two such occasions took place in the southern United States; one just south of Marco Island, Florida and the other in Savannah, Georgia. These experiences couldn’t have been more different from one another. One didn’t even take place in a restaurant, but in the Everglades.  

On one of our annual January sojourns to Marco Island, Andrew and I, being sea kayak enthusiasts, decided to look for a guide who could take us kayaking into the Everglades. And find one we did; a big, burly man by the name of Jack, who kept alligators as pets at his office just north of the Everglades on Florida’s west coast. The morning of our paddling adventure was made miserable by cool temperatures and drizzling rain. At the back of Jack’s van, the three of us loaded up a trailer with the kayaks, paddles and gear and set off. In due course, Jack pulled his van to the side of the road at an obscure spot. We unloaded the kayaks, setting them into a barely visible creek overhung with mangrove branches. It was there that we received our first instructions from our guide;

“Whatever you do, resist the urge to pull your kayak through this shallow area by using the mangrove branches right above your heads. There are a variety of poisonous spiders in these trees.”

It was tempting to reach up and use the mangrove branches to pull my kayak forward through the shallow, marshy, creek, but his words kept me pushing forward using only my paddle. At last we emerged into a small lake. The rain had subsided and the water was calm. We paddled quietly for several minutes before I realized that the floating log that I had been paddling towards was in fact, not a log. The alligator remained still in the water, but his watchful eyes were on me. I turned to our guide and spoke as quietly as I could and still be heard.

“I don’t like alligators.”

Spotting the alligator, our guide responded enthusiastically.

“I don’t either. That’s why I always carry a two way radio in case of an emergency and this.” He held up a very large hunting knife. “And a first aid kit.”

Maybe this adventure was a little more dangerous than I had anticipated. Somehow I didn’t find his words comforting. I paddled slowly and calmly away from the alligator, not wanting to get its dander up or what seemed to be, its interest in me.

We continued our journey and were led from one area of water to another by adjoining streams of varying widths and depths. Here and there were floating white Styrofoam buoys that Jack would stop at. At each one he would reach down and pull up a small crab trap attached to the buoy with line. I hadn’t noticed earlier that Jack had a large Dutch oven set in front of him in the kayak. Once he had pulled up a trap, he would remove the heavy lid from the pot. One by one, he removed each crab from the trap, and checked to see if it was male or female. All the females were released back into the water. The male crabs were thrown into it the pot, which was quickly covered with the heavy lid. Jack would reset each trap and ease it back into the water. At one spot a large chunk had been bitten out of the buoy. Jack held it up for us to see.

“Alligators don’t differentiate between inanimate things and live creatures. They just attack everything. This buoy was whole yesterday.”

As we went deeper and deeper into the Everglades, the waterways became narrower and shallower until finally, Jack instructed us to leave our kayaks at the edge of the creek and walk through the knee deep water to a spot that he wanted to take us to. He paddled for a few minutes longer then got out of his kayak and pulled it through the water.

“Okay, let’s stop here.”

The rain had begun again. We were standing in about a foot and a half of water, in the middle of a creek in the pouring rain, and waited. We had no idea what to expect next.

“I like you two,” announced our gruff guide. “I don’t like everyone that I take on this kayak tour, but you two showed up in bad weather, you’ve followed all of my instructions and you’ve been great company. So I’m going to make you lunch. I don’t tell customers about having lunch here in advance because I don’t do this for everyone. If I don’t like who I’m with I just take my pot of crabs home with me for my dinner!” he laughed heartily.

With that, he reached into his kayak and took out a rectangular board about a foot and half wide that had a rope attached to each corner. He tied each piece of rope to a mangrove branch, creating a stable platform. It looked like a small swing suspended from the branch. Next he set a two burner camp stove in the middle of the board and lit the burners. He lifted the pot full of crabs from his kayak and dipped it into the water, filling it part way, then set it on the burners. We stood there in amazement and delight. We were going to have fresh steamed crabs, in the rain, in the middle of a creek deep in the Everglades. Until that point I hadn’t realized how hungry I was! There were more surprises in store.

Next, Jack pulled out a collapsible table, unfolded the legs, and set up the table in the water.  He then pulled out a package and unwrapped a round loaf of olive focaccia, setting it on top of the table.

“I baked it last night,” he said, with a little pride showing through in his husky voice.

Even to this day, that olive focaccia was the best I’ve ever tasted; the olives and rosemary gave it a lovely, savoury flavour and the texture was perfect.

When the crabs were ready, Jack showed us how to crack open each section of a crab so we could extract the delicate meat inside. The crab meat was sweet, tender and utterly delectable.

“Just toss the shells to the side of the creek” he instructed. They’ll all be gone by tomorrow.”

Really? What was in there, anyway? I peered hard into the tangle of mangrove branches, but could only see darkness. Jack saw me starring into the underbrush and only vaguely confirmed my suspicions:

“Believe me; you don’t want to know what’s in there.”

Our view into the Mangrove trees

Jack had one final surprise in store. From his kayak he pulled out a container and lifted the lid, revealing a dark chocolate layer cake.

“I made this, too!” he proudly informed us.

“Can you believe this?” I exclaimed. “We’re having chocolate cake in the Everglades. This is absolutely amazing. Thanks to our great chef and tour guide.”

He was so pleased and so happy to have given us this unforgettable experience.

We packed up and headed back, retrieved our kayaks and paddled back to where our journey had begun. We loaded up the pick up truck and headed back toward his office. The rain had increased and water was accumulating on the flat road. Our guide was driving too fast and suddenly his van started hydroplaning, sliding back and forth over the water on the road. I hung onto the door and held my breath until he finally regained control. We arrived safely back where our journey had begun, helped him unload the kayaks and gear, expressed our thanks and said our goodbyes.

In subsequent visits to Marco Island, we’ve returned to the location where our kayak tour guide had his office, but sadly, it was no longer there and we’ve been unable to find out any information regarding his whereabouts. Jack was gone and we would never again be able to repeat our incredible experience, but I will always cherish the memory of that unforgettable day and that most unusual, amazing lunch.

Southern Hospitality to be cont’d. 

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