Sunday, January 6, 2019

Conch Fritter Life

Let the R & R begin.

The good news is, when you wake up on a Saturday morning at the Miami airport hotel, you can be at the "Welcome to the Keys" sign by 11 a.m., even if you take a less traveled route than the obvious Route 1.

Our arrival time meant we slid into Alabama Jack's before the lunch crowds, scoring a waterside high table with no effort. One of Mr. Wright's Vero Beach buddies had suggested the vintage dive bar as essential road eating, mainly for the conch fritters.

No one needed to tell us twice to stop at a place with a cut-out metal sign reading, "Harley parking only" and with two milkcrates inexplicably sitting on the roof.

Although we also ordered perfectly delicious spiced shrimp, Hugh had been right and it was the fritters that needed to be experienced. Instead of a basket of neat little balls of fried bread and conch, what arrived was an enormous fritter that overflowed the sides of the basket and had the shape of a tentacled blob. I mean that in the best way.

Two plastic knives were impaled in the fritter, the better to carve out bites of the monster while gleaning the history of the joint from our friendly server. Seems Alabama Jack's started life as a fishing camp across the water from a mangrove forest. It wasn't hard to imagine salty fishermen traveling dirt roads to get there.

Open to the elements on all sides, the railings were covered in Sharpie-scribbled declarations of love, the ancient fans mounted on the weathered walls were covered in rust and when food fell off a plate to the floor, the staff just kicked it into the water. Old license plates hung everywhere, from a  Florida plate reading "NO TAX" to a Maryland plate that had expired 3-31-70.

Every time the bartender got a tip, he rang a rusty old bell. That kind of place.

The first time I saw how food removal happened, it was a chicken bone the server jettisoned into the water. Immediately, a school of what I learned was needle fish - long, skinny, almost translucent green needle-nosed creatures - descended on it voraciously.

When I commented to our server about the feeding frenzy, she told us to wait until the mango snappers showed up, which was anytime a piece of conch fritter hit the water. Naturally, I immediately pulled off a piece of ours and tossed it overboard, only to see 30 or so fish shoot out from the wooden slats under our table and fight over it.

And by fight, I mean, out of the water, tails slapping each other and the water, and fish bumping into each other. Kind of like what I imagined eating at an orphanage was like in Dickensian times.

Shrimp shells had a similar, if not quite as frenetic, effect on the needle fish, but the mango snappers clearly wanted their lunch fried. Some rube tossed out lettuce and onion and the fish and I looked at him incredulously. These fish wanted the good stuff off our plates.

Surely this goes against every law of nature, right? What ecosystem supports cannibalism anyway?

But it wasn't all ugly competition. Boats passed by slowly, many of the occupants waving hello because the distance from us to them was so close. Meanwhile, across the water we saw a great blue heron standing calmly by the mangroves, his back to us.

Or maybe he was just disgusted with his fellow water dwellers.

By the time we left, new arrivals were having to sit far from the water and were happy to get that. We may have been ungodly early at Alabama Jack's, but our timing was impeccable.

Our next stop was as unlikely as it was charming. Tucked behind a Holiday Inn and hard to locate, we stopped to see the original African Queen. That's right, the boat used in the Hepburn/Bogart movie, which now docks behind a glass bottom boat in Key Largo.

Since it hasn't been all that long since I saw "The African Queen" at the Byrd, it was instantly recognizable.

Even more surprising was how small it looked. There was the boiler (recently replaced) in the center and the canopy that kept the rain off Hepburn as she slept. On the back was a wooden crate of gin like the one Bogart emptied in the movie. The smell of old water-saturated wood rose from the old girl.

A guy standing on the dock told us that the 1912 boat had been bought in 1982 and moved to Florida. Both an American and British flag were mounted on it and you could actually go out on a dinner cruise on it despite its petite size.

And while that would have been lovely, we had other places to be, namely Islamorada.

The digs for our winter getaway is called Leila's house and sits on the most placid Atlantic I've ever seen. When it's low tide, there's a little beach and when it's high tide, there's an ocean that ends near the downstairs patio and pool. From the main deck, about all we see is water that ranges from turquoise to bottle green to pale blue and palm trees constantly rustling in the breeze.

Best of all, it was 82 when we arrived, although the woman at the Visitors' Center warned us of an impending cold front, so it would be dropping to 75. Don't make us laugh.

Suddenly the past few weeks of non-stop deadlines are forgotten. Hello, warm days and nights. How I've missed you.

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