"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Monday, April 26, 2010

Love for the Greasy Spoon

The clam and corn chowder was pretty much an insult to chowders and soups around the globe, and the guys warned me to avoid the hamburgers. So I was skeptical that the All-You-Can-Eat shrimp and fried mullet would be worth the money.

It was the best fried seafood I’ve ever had. The shrimp was delightful, dipped in an egg-white wash and lightly breaded. These prawns could have been swimming, enjoying life just six hours prior. Having never experienced the sting of a freezer, they tasted that fresh. The mullet fillets were small, but harbored none of the fishy taste bigger slabs do. The lack of size was compensated by the endless plates served to the table. Chalk one up for the sin of gluttony.

The little joint was called Robinson’s, a quaint seafood depot on the west side of Rosewood as you follow 24 to Cedar Key. Next door is a seafood shop stocked with treats from local waters, notably clams. Their crop of clams had been picked clean, though, as wandering yuppies stopped in as they passed by on their way into or out of Cedar Key. That weekend the island was hosting one of their many art festivals, events that draw out-of-towners from God-knows-where to purchase clam shell wind chimes and artwork of manatees that don’t belong – aesthetically speaking – in any modern suburban household. But, it’s a high time for a local economy that does not have a whole lot propping it up.

Back at the restaurant, a man, clearly a New York-American, bellowed at the waitress as he squeezed his ample thighs through the door:

“The food any good here? The Viper Club has arrived!”

Or something to that effect.

We chuckled. Dope. What? You think the teen aged waitress is gonna tell you the food blows and to hit the road, Jack? And Viper Club, what in the world? They didn’t appear to be bikers – more well-to-do than your typical attorney turned leather road warrior so common on Harley’s these days.

Dad paid the tab as we strolled back into the sunlight, and parked in the limestone driveway were eight shiny Dodge Vipers. That answered that! Who knew Dodge Vipers had their own fan club? And out here in rural Levy County. Of course, we were in rural Levy County to turkey hunt, one of the strangest, most neurotic hobbies of all time. Usually though, when I dine out on hunting trips, I’m dug so deep into rural America you don’t find competing interests and cultural rifts.

There are some excellent eatin’ joints out there, but you gotta get off the Interstate to find them. More times than not, food is hot, cheap, and plentiful. These places make me despise chain restaurants that have you pay for atmosphere and whose menus consist of flank steaks and pressed chicken breasts slathered with whatever flavor aioli – the condiment formerly known as mayonnaise – you want gooping up your dish all for the low price of fifteen bucks.

(And don’t get me started on chipotle. I’m not sure what species of plant or animal a chipotle is, but it has evidently rooted itself in between “water” and “shelter” on that short list of essential human needs. Judging by the menus at these places, chipotle MUST be in every meal. Thanks, whoever introduced that culinary fad.)

I look forward to these greasy spoon restaurants while on hunting trips. I like leaving a place with a full stomach and money left in the bank. Robin’s Kitchen was once a fine example. Robin’s nested on the converging paths of 321 and 301 in Ulmer, SC. Ulmer is one of several decaying Eastern ghost towns that, once-upon-a-time, depended on those thoroughfares. The Interstate system was the Death Blow, rerouting travellers up the coast. Now, the remaining residents cotton to hunters, soybeans, and, well, cotton.

Robin was a trucker’s ex-wife hailing from, of all places, Miami. She’d be at the restaurant to serve hunters bacon and eggs and coffee in the wee morning hours before we’d leave for the treestands. She’d be there for lunch and dinner, too. I don’t think she slept.

One day Mike was running his mouth about how the steaks probably sucked. Robin heard this and served him up the biggest side of cow sirloin I’d ever seen. Though he tried, Mike couldn’t finish it. He ordered steaks there every year until our Robin flew away to parts unknown. The next year the restaurant was named Three Sisters. The ladies tried to keep up, but the food was cold and the service lacking. Maybe by coincidence, maybe not, but our years of hunting that region of SC stopped soon after.

South Carolina – especially throughout Barnwell and Bamberg Counties - was home to some awfully fine buffets and that fantastic mustard-based BBQ sauce. My years hunting Georgia uncovered a few fine buffets as well. The Bobcat CafĂ© in Blakely comes to mind. Fried Just About Everything. You’d be surprised the number of Southern restaurant buffets that screw up their fried foods – I’ve had fried chicken so dried out and tasteless I considered swallowing stones to aid digestion. Bobcat did it right. The place across the street served the best pulled pork ever.

Of the greatest hunting trip meals I’ve ever had, a December stop at the Roadrunner in Colquitt, GA ranks #1. Don, Travis, and I swung in for oysters on our way in town for a deer hunt. They warned me how delicious the oysters would be, but I truly wasn’t prepared. Captain Dennis, the old guy shucking behind the bar, served up ice cold Busch Lite cans and chatted away as we plowed through a few dozen of the plumpest, saltiest oysters the Good Lord has ever blessed upon Apalachicola Bay. But then, Capt. D threw down the gauntlet. Try his Parmesan-baked oysters. These things belonged in plastic Easter Eggs, they were so tasty.

Years later, I drove down to Colquitt from Randolph County to visit Capt. D. They shut the restaurant down, but still sold the oysters. Thirty bucks for a bushel. I miss hunting Western Georgia in large part because of Roadrunners.

Not all these places are five-star, however. Lots of food on the road comes from Quickie Marts and whatnot. These stops are downright deadly. Clear Run, a gas station/deli in Harrells, NC is such a place. The food is what you’d expect – fried pork chops, chicken, mashed potatoes, etc - but everything is just too greasy. Still, it is just about the only place around, and after a hard day’s hunt, just too accessible. I watched a woman in there one time order the short ribs. She insisted the server pour more sauce over the ribs. The “sauce” was, more or less, a puddle of grease, and upon closer inspection, featured the gasoline rainbows you’d witness in an oil spill. How anyone up there survives past 50 is beyond me. Each time I’ve returned home from this trip, I crave as much fiber and salad I can get my hands on.

Other diners and delis jump to mind for different reasons than food. The Surefire Grill, Bar, and Gunstore in Olar, SC, for example. Buy beer, burgers, and bullets all in one stop. Don’t remember anything I ate, but do recall buying my license and turning around to shoot pool. A small restaurant in Red Feather, Colorado near the Wyoming border. The cute waitress appeared puzzled when I asked for a sweet tea. I was a 17 year old from the South and assumed it was a staple everywhere. Haven’t erred in that manner again.

For sure, these stops are all part of what makes hunting an adventure, if even in a small way. When I plan a trip, I budget in the most cost-efficient manner that still allows me to sample the local fare. Canned ravioli and beef jerky will only carry me so far.

I doubt, however, I’ll ever find another place that cooks as delicious shrimp and mullet than Robinson’s. Doesn’t mean I won’t try, though.


Ian Nance said...

If anyone has a favorite place of their own, feel free to share!!!

James Piney said...

If ever in Hampton county South Carolina, Lesters BBQ is a must. Best southern cooking around. It's on Savannah hwy in Estill.

murphyfish said...

Hey Ian,
Excellent post, bringing back memories of fishing trips long gone where after freezing me nadgers off on some fore lorn coastline the one thing that made it worth while was the simple hot grub found at the simplest of places, favourite at the moment it the Harbour Chippy just outside of Conwy, best cod n chips that I think that I've ever had the pleasure to consume.
All the best,
Hungry John!

Ian Nance said...

John, you are correct - nothing is more comforting than coming in from a cold hunt and getting some hot, greasy food. Unless you do it regularly, it's tough to explain.