For the past two weeks Mr. Henry has been on the road and in the swamp. He has eaten blueberries in Maine, black raspberries in Massachusetts, corn in upstate New York, and fried soft shell crab in Florida.
Step aside, Maryland. In the Stygian waters of the vast St. John’s River estuary the blue crab is molting.
Although shrimp is caught locally in Jacksonville, in summer it can be soft and lacking flavor. Catfish filet is local as well, and surprisingly good if you don’t mind a few inevitable bones. Soft shell crab, however, is clearly the best local catch.
At Clark’s Fish Camp on Julington Creek, a fry house in the swamp, New York Robert went for the full, bona fide Southern experience by ordering the Swamp Fest Platter, a mixed fry of conch, mako shark, frog legs, catfish, squid, and gator tail.
It’s all good, it’s all fried, and every platter comes with hush puppies.
The insistent flavor of breading browned in corn oil nearly overwhelmed the light scallopy taste of conch, but gator tail survived the fryer with flavor intact. Yes, it does taste rather like chicken, but with chewier texture and, to Mr. Henry’s palate, a brighter and more interesting flavor. (With more than one million in Florida, the alligator is no longer endangered.)
Mr. Henry stopped Robert from ordering the frightful Swamp Cocktail, a boozy brew of vodka, rum, blue Curacao, triple sec, orange juice, sour, and “a splash of Pepsi.” Hooooooo doggies!
There was no need to prove manhood here, however. Local tap water is daring enough.
A stroll along the boat dock revealed several large red-eared slider turtles on the surface of the black water as well as a small alligator toying with a floating wedge of cocktail lemon.
More daunting than the swamp critters or the hundred or more stuffed animals on the walls, however, at the bar a group of ladies in Gator regalia jiggling iced after-dinner drinks snagged Robert in a flirty conversation that, but for the prudent intervention of Mr. Henry, might have culminated in more bona fides than he reckoned for.