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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Electric Icicles and Christmas Lights - Eating out at Shellman Bluff

This is a follow-up from my last post.

Our journey to Shellman Bluff last Sunday afternoon held its share of surprises. As we approached Ridgeville, my memory was refreshed. I was reminded by a marker on the side of the road that an entire portion of the community, The Ridge, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The three houses that compose The Ridge are Victorian (1837–1901), not Antebellum (1781–1860), and are closer to the road than I remembered. And the massive oaks I remembered on the lawns are actually on the sides of the road. There are plenty of magnolias and azaleas in the yards, though. Entering Ridgeville, it feels ten degrees cooler as the car passes under a canopy of giant oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

How is it that memory can be so faulty? I’ve driven through that place countless times during my 66 years, and I still had a little girl’s image of wide expanses of lawn in my head. When you’re small, everything seems enormous. The first time I saw “New” Casino - now long gone - on Saint Simons, when I was about five years old, it loomed over me like a white stucco giant, and the letters spelling out C-A-S-I-N-O soared 20 feet tall in my mind. The sidewalk leading to it was a wide as a paved road.

As we continued on Highway 99, we passed tiny houses, some made of cinderblocks, others of clapboard or aluminum siding with metal awnings. How could I have forgotten the periwinkle blues and mustard yellows and bright pinks of their paint? And what about the once-white ones, now faded to gray with rusted window screens hanging from single hinges? And the trailers? I purposely use the word trailer instead of mobile home, because there is nothing mobile about them. They have sat where they are for years, most secured by concrete block foundations. While some are still inhabited, others sit among weeds as tall as I am, oxidized to a dusty brown. Scattered about the sandy and barren yards of the houses that have people living in them are concrete chickens and other fake livestock - deer painted brown with white spots, ducks, a pink pig, some goats and the occasional forgotten reindeer crumbling in the humid air and harsh sunlight of the coastal plain. There are rusty old cars and pickup trucks with weeds growing up through their decayed bottoms and out the windows. One yard boasts a broken down shrimp boat, and there is no shortage of old mattresses and box springs. Sawhorses serve to support makeshift tables made of plywood sheets in front yards and on sagging porches - none of them screened and some sporting strings of Christmas lights made up to look like icicles. 

We arrived too early in the afternoon to bird-watch at the rookery, so we drove onto Tolomato Island and through another tunnel of oaks arching across the road. We have lots of those here on the coast of Georgia. We inched past the ruins of the sugar mill and rum distillery that operated there 200 years ago. It was thrilling. No kidding, I am that big a nerd. 

We followed Highway 99 back toward Old Coast Road, as I like to call US Highway 17. The roadside is littered with still more rundown houses and trailers with dirt yards sporting the occasional leggy rose bush or top heavy sego palm among the old bicycles and cars.  Then there are the intermittent manicured lawns strewn with camellias and fronting midcentury modern red brick ranch houses. Long abandoned service stations display rusty old signs advertising Coca Cola and Pure gas and Orange Crush. Night clubs in block buildings, some of them still in business and painted red or blue, pop up on a piney lot from time to time.

We didn’t move to Saint Simons until I was nine, and those sights were reminiscent of the roadways of my early childhood when we lived in Woodbine, about 30 miles south of Brunswick - except for the Christmas lights. I vividly remember the colors of those houses and the contents of those yards. Why were these suddenly so new to me? Had I not noticed them before? Surely, that can’t be true. Maybe I really did live in Macon too long.

In Eulonia, both of us needing to use a restroom, we pulled into a dollar store to buy something so we could use theirs. Right there in the middle of nowhere, is one of the best dollars stores I have ever seen, but they had sold their last wine opener the night before. I needed one to take to Speed's. If we hadn’t been so eager to get to Shellman Bluff, I could have shopped for a while, but we went next door to the liquor store only to find out that they also had sold their last wine opener the night before. I suppose there must have been a busy Saturday night in Eulonia. I finally settled on a bottle of wine with a screw top, as the selection was limited. 

The drive from Eulonia to Shellman Bluff was as I expected - only the roadsides are cleaner of debris and decaying vehicles. There are more plastic flowers in washtubs and real shrubs than the stuff of junkyards. One neat white cottage had window boxes filled with dark purple and bright yellow petunias, those hardy sun-loving flowers that will bloom through the summer. 

We turned onto Speed’s Kitchen Road and drove past where the pavement stops, and there wasn’t a single car in the dirt yard. I immediately noticed a “For Sale” sign stuck in the sandy yard next to one of the trailers, and there wasn’t a light on that we could see. P had heard from someone that Speed’s had closed, but since we checked their Facebook page before leaving home, we had dismissed the rumor. 

“They aren’t open!” exclaimed Parrish. “The rumor must have been true. Now what are we going to do?”

We sat for a moment and stared at the unlit windows of Speed’s. The blue and red neon “Open” sign hung dark on the side of the entrance. 

“Well, that’s the end of an era for our family,” I said, crestfallen at the loss of a family tradition that spanned 38 years. I wanted to cry, but I rallied.

“Well, there’s always Hunter’s Cafe,” I suggested.

Disheartened, we turned around slowly, bidding our old friend a sad farewell, and drove back past the Rehoboth Baptist Church and onto the road that leads down to the river. We passed an assemblage of little cottages and the ubiquitous trailers on our way to the one-lane dirt road that creeps along the river. The river is on the right, and Hunter’s sits across the road, facing it.

We parked on the side of the road facing the river, and walked across to a shack of a place strung with Christmas lights and some of those electric icicles. There are white lights spiraled around a palm tree beside the entrance to the screened porch as well as multicolored Christmas lights strung from the roof of the front porch. Without its adornments, it would look like just any old shanty sitting beside the road.  We walked across the yard through a blanket of leaves to the front door and were shown to a table on the screened porch. It was much too fine a day to sit inside.

If Speed’s is notable for its lack of decor, Hunter’s is its opposite. On the porch, where we joined two other tables of diners, the windows are draped in wide strings of shiny silver aluminum icicles that serve as curtains of a sort. They are knotted at the bottom, adding a certain je ne sait quoi to the ambiance. There are more Christmas lights hanging from the aluminum roof and around the edges of the ceiling. And there are dollar bills tacked on the walls and door, each signed and put there by a visitor. It is a sight to behold, as we say in The Deep South.

The food was outstanding, much better than I remember, but then we know how tricky my memory can be. Parrish feasted on a whole flounder stuffed with crabmeat, and I had fried shrimp. We learned that ordering a broiled flounder at Hunter’s means a minimum of a thirty minute wait, much like Speed’s, and we also learned that it is worth the time it takes. Parrish was in heaven. The shrimp were good, but not like Speed’s. 

We enjoyed the wait. The breeze was stiff but not cold, and since they have a bar at Hunter’s, I sipped a glass of wine as we chatted and reminisced about Speed’s and mourned its passing. We admired the Broro, a tidal arm of the Sapelo River, and it's view across the marsh to Sapelo Island.  

It finally dawned on me to ask our server the obvious question. 

“How long has Speed’s been closed?”

“I didn’t know it was closed,” she said with some surprise.

“We drove down there and it was dark and there was a for sale sign in the yard. My son heard a rumor that it was closed, but we didn’t believe it. What do you supposed happened?”

“I dont know. That sign’s been up for a long time, but last I knew, they were still open for business. Maybe somebody’s sick and they had to close for that.”

For those of you who’ve never frequented small towns in Georgia, the fact that somebody’s sick is a perfectly sound reason for closing a business. Remember in the movie, "My Cousin Vinnie," when the dry goods store was “closed for flu?” It happens, believe me. 

We shared a slice of homemade key lime pie for dessert, and when we left Hunter’s, full and happy, we drove back to Speed’s - just in case. 

And sure enough, there were cars in the yard and the sign was on. When we went inside to see Clint’s picture on the wall, we learned that they had forgotten to turn on the "Open" sign! Jubilant, we stood in front of the photo of Clint and Miss Virginia, admiring it and remembering the night it was taken and promising ourselves that we would soon be back. 

And we will.   

Copyright 2014 
cj Schlottman

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Breaking Out For a Trip to Speed's Kitchen

I am ready to climb out of this funk that has enshrouded me for days. My knee and back are still painful, but I have learned that pain medicine makes me constipated and does little else. My knee hurts every time I put weight on it. Walking is a chore, but no manner of rest or ice has proved to change the situation. I am weary of sitting on my ass as it grows wider by he day. 
Today, P and I are going to drive up to Shellman Bluff to eat at Speed’s Kitchen, my favorite place in the world for fried shrimp and crab stew. We will take the Old Coast Road to Darien, passing through the marshes where centuries ago, rice plantations thrived, driven by slave labor. We we will ride up Highway 99, through Ridgeville with it’s clapboard antebellum homes that sit back from the road, fronted by wide lawns lush with azaleas and dotted with ancient oaks. 

We will pass through Meridian and a few miles down the road, we will turn east at Carnigan toward the Tolomato Spanish Mission Ruins. There lies a rookery populated by Wood Storks and Ibis (glossy and white) and Egrets (great and small) and other herons, like the Great Blue. We will pull out the binoculars to peer at them and speak in hushed tones as we take photos.

The tiny communities of Valona and Cedar Point and Crescent dot the road on the way to Eulonia, where we will reconnect with the Old Coast Road. From there it is  only a few miles north to the turn-off for Pine Harbor and the hard left that takes us to Shellman Bluff, one of the oldest fishing villages on Georgia’s coast. We will drive through the piney coastal plain with mobile homes and churches scattered along the roadside. On a Sunday there will be gatherings for preaching and dinner on the ground, with ladies dressed all in white - right down to their shoes and stockings. And they will all be wearing hats.

In 1976, when my brother, John, introduced Clint and me to Speed’s and we began traveling the forty-or-so miles up the road from Saint Simons to eat there, Shellman Bluff was a sleepy little fish camp, not even a hint on most maps. But fishermen knew where it was, and they launched their boats into the Broro River there. A few cabins were scattered about and there were two restaurants - Speed’s Kitchen on Speed’s Kitchen Road, just past Shellman Bluff Baptist Church, and Hunter’s Cafe in downtown Shellman Bluff, across the road from the river.
We used to have to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining rooms, comprised of two trailers hooked together to form a T. Today, there is an addition on the front where the main entrance is. Even the “new” room feels like a mobile home. In the first “old” room, there is a photo on the wall of Clint and “Miss Virginia,” taken by Kay on the night of Homer's 60th birthday dinner. Miss Virginia took care of our rowdy group that night, and the spirit of that evening lives on. On my last visit to Speed’s, while I was still living in Macon, I borrowed the picture, took it home and had it reframed and mailed it back.
The menu, for as long as I can remember, has been printed on a blue and white paper place mat. On the side of the menu, you will find this statement:  “Shellman Bluff. Not a place for Fast lane folks. Ain't got no red lights.” And they mean it. If you order broiled flounder stuffed with crabmeat, the girls will prepare and stuff that fish to order, and it can take as long as 45 minutes to an hour to be fed. It was Clint's favorite food in the world, and we always enjoyed the wait. 
Loosen your belt when you sit down. Have a cup of crab stew and some slaw while you wait for your meal. If you order a fried dinner, it will be out fairly quickly, and you will be amazed at how delicious it is. As I mentioned above, broiled dinners come out more slowly, as do crab au gratin and deviled crab, but they are more than worth the wait. I can taste the crab au gratin right now. Oh, and the hushpuppies…sweet with onions and crunchy as fried chicken. Kay Nelson taught me how to peel a hushpuppy and feast on the crust, dipped it in Speed’s incomparable tartar sauce. 

And take your checkbook or be certain you are flush with cash, because they don’t take credit cards. If you want anything hard to drink, take that with you, too. They don't sell alcohol, but they're happy for you to brown bag it.
So, I am off to shower and dress for our outing. The anticipation of the drive and the wonderful food have me excited and hungry. It will be my second trip to Speed’s since Clint’s death in 2009, and I expect to shed a tear or two when I see his photo on the wall. They will be good tears, though. He will be there with us, not like old times but like new times, better times.

Copyright 2014
cj Schlottman