“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
A favorite local business has reopened recently after having been destroyed in October 2018 by Hurricane Michael. The Shell Shack on Mexico Beach is back in the game, and I could not be happier to see it.
The Shell Shack has been part of the culture of Mexico Beach since 1965. and they’ve always had delicious fresh seafood for sale, alongside fantastic kitsch and beachwear for tourists and locals alike to enjoy. Every time I go in, I dig through the t-shirts, frequently finding a new one I really “need.”
I usually buy fresh shrimp, and either grouper or red snapper when I visit The Shell Shack. I love making it just like my mama did, because she let the flavor of the seafood shine through, instead of piling on heavy breading or sauces. Seafood as delicious as we are privileged to have in the waters around northwest Florida doesn’t need a lot of dressing up, much like the people who live here.
The Shell Shack is also special to me because it’s been part of my own life for as long as I can remember. I remember that I loved going there as a child with my grandmother. I seem to recall at one time they sold turquoise jewelry, or had a jewelry maker in house for some special event, perhaps many years back. My mom and Grammy each bought a silver-and-turquoise bracelet and ring, which my sister and I now have and wear on special occasions.
Mama and Grammy also made shell-filled glass table lamps. The vast majority of the shells in those lamps came from the sands of St. Joe Beach, Indian Pass and the Cape. But a few small bags of supplemental shells were purchased from the Shell Shack to fill them out. They were just beautiful, though I didn’t appreciate their beauty then, as a 1980s middle school student. I am in the process of having mama’s rewired so I can use it in my own home now.
Each time I buy fresh shrimp there, I follow the same method mama taught me when I was a child. I grab a large bowl, a small knife and a grocery bag, and take the ice-cold shrimp with me outside on the porch to clean them. Some folks don’t find it necessary to remove the “vein” from each shrimp, but for me, it’s a must. As I sit there doing that, I usually reminisce with my sister about the many times mom sat us down at the table, which she would have covered with newspaper, and had us clean the shrimp dad had brought home. We, of course, think about mama even more than usual when we’re home on our beach repeating these small but meaningful traditions.
When I cook the shrimp, along with some of whichever fish I bought, I use mom’s method. Her recipe: Plain flour piled on a plate or bowl, with some garlic powder, salt and pepper added in. I gently toss the shrimp in the mixture, and fry them for just a couple of minutes in some hot oil, then drain them on paper towels.
I use the same method for the fish, but adding a bit of Tony Chachere’s blackening seasoning to the flour mixture before dredging the filets in it. It’s simple and perfect, and better than any heavy batter one could use, in my opinion.
I typically pair the amazing seafood with some smoked Gouda grits, or in the event of a lack of smoked Gouda, good ol’ American cheese grits, just the way our mother used to do it. It’s hard to argue with perfection.
How blessed we are to have the people and places like The Shell Shack that exist along “The Forgotten Coast.” I buy the t-shirts that proclaim the coast’s nickname, but in reality, I could never forget the people and places that make up this special part of the world. Each visit serves to strengthen my love for the place and the people who live here. If you are so blessed to call Northwest Florida home, be mindful of its uniqueness, and be grateful you are a part of that special community.
If you’re inspired to make some grits to go with your seafood, here are a couple of my favorite recipes. I hope you like them as much as our family does.
· 1 cup quick (NOT instant) grits
· 3 cups chicken broth (or water, if that’s all you have on hand)
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 1/2 cup heavy cream or half and half
· 2/3 cup grated Parmesan
· 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Bring the broth or water to a boil, and then whisk in the grits, salt and red pepper flakes. Return to a boil, then turn to low to keep a slow simmer, stirring occasionally and covering with lid, for the time indicated on your container of grits. (Quick grits are usually ready in five to eight minutes.)
Still over low heat, stir in the Parmesan and the cream. Whisk to incorporate well. Taste and add a small bit of other seasonings as you like, such as Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning, etc., being careful not to over-salt.
Smoked Gouda & Cheddar Grits Casserole
· 1 1/4 cups uncooked regular grits (Quick grits are ok; never use instant.)
· 2 cups chicken broth (or water)
· 2 cups milk
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (plus extra to sprinkle on top before baking)
· 1/2 cup salted butter, cut into cubes
· 1 (10-oz.) block sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (I used 5-ounce Cabot Co-op sharp cheddar, and 5-ounce Cabot Co-op white cheddar)
· 4 ounces smoked Gouda cheese, grated
· 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1. Bring grits, chicken broth, and next 3 ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 4 to 5 minutes or until thickened. Stir in butter and cheeses until melted. Be careful not to let the grits scorch! Remove from heat.
2. Gradually stir about one-fourth of hot grits mixture into eggs; add egg mixture to remaining hot grits mixture, stirring constantly. Pour grits mixture into a lightly greased 2 1/2-quart baking dish. (This egg-mixing step is important; it keeps you from having scrambled eggs in your grits!) 😉
3. Bake at 350° for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly around edges. Let stand for five minutes before serving.
These are easy to make, and as they bake, the fragrance makes you want to eat them as soon as they come out of the oven. It’s good to let them sit on the counter for five or 10 minutes, though, so they can firm up for easier serving. Also, these are excellent when reheated. Pair them with bacon for breakfast one morning, and maybe the next day pair the leftovers, sliced, with fish or grilled meats, etc.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three young adult sons who can eat twice their weight in fried shrimp. You can find more of her recipes and writing at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.