INLET BEACH, FLA – Traveling to this isolated summer hide-out, I took a long detour to the oceanfront through the tourist-attraction-filled streets of Fort Walton Beach, and then drove the length of Destin’s island, all to reach this one seafood joint, its location marked for its admirers by a three-story-tall American flag flying on the main drag out front. This is an establishment that owns boats & employs fishermen, that every morning catches, cleans and cuts pristinely fresh fish and sorts shellfish to sell at nominal prices to those lucky enough to know that it exists. The proprietors care not if you are Canadian snowbird or New Orleans cur dog, but they accept only US cash in payment, and hire only the greatest-looking teenaged beach bunnies to stand behind the giant trays of ice and hand out bags of oceanic food.
For both the fish and the service I have given them my custom now for over two decades and drive well out of my way to do so. As I pause there while nearing my final destination, in one fell swoop I have stocked up on my principal food for at least the first week of my residence. And if you have been to the establishment before, like me, and are savvy enough to have brought your own cooler, the abundant teens will very deliberately and efficiently pack your plastic-bagged purchases in layers of ice for maximum freshness longevity.
Which means that you need not devour everything you bought on the first night in-house. I have already eaten much of the two pounds of six-count Gulf Royal Red shrimp – a “count”, BTW, being how many shellfish make up a pound. The smaller the count, the bigger the shrimp. In this case six-count means that each shrimp weighs almost three ounces. Large, two to three biters, and tasty they are. But I still have grouper and flounder and cobia (lemonfish) on ice. To be consumed shortly and in good fashion.
Which is what led me today to bicycle the two miles across the inlet bay to the outskirts of Panama City Beach on a mission for butter and fresh lemons and limes. And dill weed. And charcoal. Two massive supermarkets sit astride US Highway 98 as the bike path crosses the bridge, near the demarcation noting that a corporate entity named Carillon Beach is turning into the City of Panama. City. Beach. The pair of stores are both highly decorated outposts of national chains and primarily cater to the whims of non-native tourists, who are in turn served by native cashiers, butchers and baggers, none of whom can afford to shop where they work.
The locally-owned little roadside sheds that seasonally sell fruits and veggies have not yet opened for the summer, and the sole gas station in the village sells butter that may have actually been salvaged from WWII overstock depots. So, outfitted with a backpack and cooler bag, I go two-wheeled to the supermarkets. How can I saute the flounder in butter, lemon and dill, without butter, lemon, and fresh dill? How can I grill the grouper without charcoal? So, to the supermarket. And the adjacent wine shop, of course.
In my search for ingredients, I find that there is also a seafood department in the first store. I stop and stare. And stop further at the realization of the objects of my stare. The counter is liberally stocked with row after row of “previously-frozen” Maine lobster tails, Mississippi catfish (there is a sale on: “buy one pound and get two more pounds for free” – indicating to me that this is probably not today’s newly-defrosted catch), Thai shrimp, and Australian tuna.
This store is less than a hundred yards from a Gulf of Mexico teeming with hundreds if not thousands of species of edible creatures. At least four outrageous varieties of lobsters (my favorite being the pink-meated shovelnose or “slipper” lobster rather than the ubiquitous though also-tasty spiny variety), dozens of whitefish that would shame any farmed mud-dwelling cat, shrimp of inestimable variety and size, and both yellow and blue-finned tuna that would be the prize hostage of any Nipponese sashimi abductor.
Nonetheless, here is the perfect example of one-size-fits-all capitalist consumerism. In mid-America, for non-meat-eaters stranded amidst a thousand miles of rolling wheat, corn and cattle, a seafood department like this is a godsend for anyone not into butt roasts and saddle steaks. Or for those just wanting something non-mammalian in origin.
But here, within a stone’s throw of the source, this display of goods from elsewhere is more than senseless. It is insulting. Even as an American consumer, I am stunned. I am motivated to protest.
“Wait now. It is all right out there! Right there!” I fell compelled to yell. Indeed, I find that I am already pointing waterward when the red-faced gent behind the counter notices me standing white-faced, frozen and rigid in front of his workplace, and asks if he can do anything for me. I do not answer. He cannot, actually, do anything for me. But instead, mouth still agape and stuffed with the unsaid proclamation, I turn to my left to trudge, overwhelmed, to the overchilled dairy section. For unsalted butter. From Wisconsin.
And, again I am not kidding, to procure lemons from Mexico. Amidst some of the largest citrus groves on the continent.
I carry my supplies home, determined to treat and eat all ingredients equally.
* * *
So, with worldwide supermarketing nearby, this tiny village, bordered by a national wildlife refuge, is not as entirely isolated from the rest of the modern world, with its politics and military madness, as one might imagine. As the bird flies – and it does – we are completely surrounded by the vast reaches of Eglin Air Force Base. A Google maps search will show a large undifferentiated beige blob to the west north and east of us, and a blue Gulf to the south. The blob is Eglin. Besides having proprietary rights to some of the best sand and surf between Fort Walton and Destin because of its beachside radar installations, Eglin also contains a minimal security prison for politicians-gone-bad. Tormented by the sound of the waves, they pass their days of confinement in ping-pong and shuffleboard, ever-anxious to return to looting their constituents from their mahogany desks in Washington. I would bet they have to eat the Hawaiian tuna and Mississippi catfish that I scorn. Such is criminal punishment in America.
And then, just thirty-one miles from my unmade bed, there is another portion of the sprawling base called Hurlburt Field, home of a Special Operations contingent of the US Air Force. There at Hurlburt, commando sorts practice all manner of “special operations” – whatever that might be -- day in, day out. That sort of activity means that there are also all these experimental, unique, and/or uniformly odd, air machines of various shapes, sizes, and equipage stationed there. Devices that get used in, say, springing American hostages from Uzbek theme parks, or spraying Republican-owned Pennsylvania opium fields with lilac-scented Roundup® weed killer.
You would think that most of these “ops”, their practice and their associated gear, would be shielded from public view. That they would be somewhat covert, at least.
But the boys in blue are still, after all, boys, and the last few days whether I am occupied beachside in drowning bait on expensive fishing gear, or merely sitting on a sand-coated Mexican Revolution commemorative towel reading a suntan-lotion-coated spy book, these same off-the-wall flying machines keep coming by, hour-after-hour, cruising straight down the beaches, east to west and then west to east, at insanely low altitudes.
I can just picture the bug-eyed pilots hunched over their multi-million-dollar high-definition surveillance screens, in a multi-multi-million dollar spy plane, burning tens of thousands of dollars worth of rarefied fuel an hour, all the while in search of the best topless tanner on this, Florida’s Emerald Coast. Looking for national security clues abreast of the most modern technology.
We do not need Wikileaks, do not need a well-intentioned sacrificial whistle-blowing insider, to out what is occurring in the skies above these transparent breakers. We are witnessing the most obvious, and most expensive, case of government voyeurism to exist outside of the DC Beltway.
In between the passing military flights, local businesses get on the same aerial parade bandwagon by advertising on hundred-foot-long banners pulled by light single-engine single-prop airplanes. Piloted by your basic off-season crop-duster trying to eke out a living during the high season.
It is quite a socio-political culture clash, this airborne parade of flying craft. Imagine a cannon-studded helicopter gunship, followed moments later by an advertisement for the best happy hour drink specials on the beach, followed by a rocket-armed vertical-horizontal winged surveillance craft, its wake followed by an invitation to “all the crab you can eat for $14.99".
Maybe the excitable special operations flyboys are just looking for a decent Maine lobster. With Wisconsin butter. And of course, a thong.
But, just as I was beginning to appreciate it, the parade will probably be cancelled for the time being. I just turned on my phone – it can somehow find the web from here, though it won’t transmit voice – and noted that there are the beginnings of the first tropical storm of the season due in here starting at noontime today, to continue with high winds, rain and surf for at least 72 hours. Probably will hit just to the east of us, the weather site says.
The hurricane season just officially started last Saturday, and here we go. No more pedaling about for a bit, and with the onset of rip tides, no getting in the water. I think I will grill the grouper before the wind comes up. Using foreign condiments. Then take a pole down to the already thrashing surf to see if I can fool another fish of some sort to volunteer for tomorrow’s plate
I suppose these books will have to do, what with no aerial military line-dancing for the rest of the week.
I have decided to think of the incoming bad weather as merely a purgative, getting Inlet Beach back closer to what it was before the onset of market chains and aereoplanes.