Over the weekend, my family and I made a road trip 4 hours west to Tampa in order to visit some friends from my high school days back in West Virginia. It seems I am far from the only West Virginia hillbilly living in Florida…(and definitely far from the only hillbilly, or at least down-home country folk…)
…..not that either of my old classmates are what I would call a “hillbilly”. But we did have fun reminiscing, swapping lies, making future plans to get together again, and, oddly enough, playing Foosball. (Seriously, what person in their 40’s has a Foosball table…that gets HEAVY use??? ) Apparently, my days in the military paid off – I believe every common room in the Air Force dorms had a Foosball table…much to my friends annoyance
The reason I mention my road trip across the state, was that it takes me through some very rural parts of Florida. Were you aware that Florida is in the top 20 cattle producing states in this country? IT is currently tied with Pennsylvania for 18th place, with over 1.6 million cows! I saw a large number of them as we passed through some serious back road parts of Florida.
One of the things I like about many of these smaller rural towns are the number of roadside stands. Strawberries, watermelon, corn, and dozens of other locally grown fruits and vegetables are offered for sale, some at stands, others sold from picnic tables in yards, or even from the back of a pickup truck.
And they don’t just offer fruits and vegetables. In season, you can find guys with trucks hawking shrimp, stone crabs, blue crabs, and various other locally acquired animal proteins. I spotted one on the trip over, and decided that if they were open on the way back, I’d have to stop.
The one that caught my eye had two trucks sitting on either side of a ramshackle stand. One truck was loaded down with fruits and veggies that spilled out over a picnic table in front of the stand. The other truck had two large chest freezers and a sign offering shrimp and blue crabs. We had packed a fairly large cooler for snacks and suck for the trip, and since we were heading home after a weekend of depleting our goodies, we had room. I was going to score some shrimp, if the quality was good.
Here is one of the shrimp:
I picked up ten pounds of these shrimp…for $25! They smelled fresh, no fishy smell, and the eyes were still clear. I was very happy with the score, so I started talking with the good old boy selling them. He said his name was Joe, and he had caught these shrimp last night over south of Tampa, and they had gone from the water straight onto ice – just the way they should be handled.
We realized we were cut from the same cloth, so started swapping lies and stories. My wife and kids were still looking over the strawberries, so I had time to kill. As I verbally sparred with my kindred spirit, I mentioned that while I grew up in West Virginia, I really wished I lived a couple hundred years ago, so I could have more freedoms, like eating buffalo and elk that used to live up in West Virginia way back then, or if I lived in Florida, sea turtle, alligator, and manatee.
I saw Joe physically flinch when I mentioned manatees. Keying in on that, I asked if he’d ever eaten any before. I know a couple of old timers that say they have, and I have a few friends whose fathers or grandfathers had talked about it. All say the same thing – mighty good eats.
He dodged the question, asking me where I lived, and what I did. I told him my details, and he seemed to relax a bit. He then floored me, asking if I knew a certain guy from my area that was from West Virginia.
The name he mentioned was my uncle! I responded with “Gravy?”, the name my uncle had acquired from my father when my uncle was a teenager. Joe actually laughed out loud and started telling me stories about my uncle I’d not heard before. It seems my uncle had been doing some hunting and fishing over in this area over the last couple of decades, and had made a few friends….and had impressed the locals.
For those of you that don’t know it, impressing small town locals to the point of calling you one of their own is no small feat. Leave it to my uncle to get “adopted” by a group of good old boys in a small town.
Then things got surreal. Joe pulled out his phone and took a picture of me. He then sent it to someone that turned out to be my uncle. Three minutes after he sent the message, Joe’s phone rang. It was my uncle!
By this time, my family had completed their choices, and called me over to pay for the goodies. Locally grown produce is almost as good as home grown, and far superior to anything you’d buy in a store. I approved of their choices, paid, and walked my family over to meet my uncle’s friend, Joe.
Joe finished his conversation and hung up as we walked up. I introduced him to my wife and girls, and my wife just laughed at how small the world is, and the way my family can meet friends in the oddest places. We went to say our goodbyes, when Joe asked if we could hang out for about 20 minutes. He wanted to get something for me to take back with us.
Trusting my uncles judgement in people, I obliged, telling Joe we needed to get going, but would wait down the road at a gas station where we could top off our tanks and allow the ladies to use the facilities.
As we went through the motions at the station, I pondered what Joe could possibly have. It took just under 20 minutes for him to get back, and I soon found out.
He pulled up next to me, and told me to pull around to the side of the station. As I pulled around, he pulled up with his truck blocking the view of my vehicle from the road. He jumped out and said he owed Gravy for all of the fun and entertainment he’d brought to this small town, and he was more than happy to oblige Garvy’s nephew in one of my little dreams.
Looking around quickly, he reached into one of the freezers on the back of his truck, and pulled out a frozen white paper package. On the paper were simply “MS-RE” and a date from exactly two weeks ago, 18 March, 2014″.
I looked at Joe with a hesitant, questioning look, “What is it”?
“A couple ribeyes. From a manatee we killed a couple weeks ago.”
What?! Seriously? My mind raced….I wasn’t sure if it was a felony, but I guarantee I’d be in a WORLD of legal trouble if I got caught….I was only about 90 minutes from home….What I held in my hands was both a dream come true, as well as a ticket to jail. I would probably never have an opportunity like this handed to me (literally) ever again….
…..and I didn’t want to be rude…
“Was it very fat?”, I asked.
“We are just coming out of winter, so it wasn’t very fat, but it was a young one, so it is VERY tender. Probably a yearling, as best we can tell. They are a lot easier to handle, pulling an adult out of the water is a LOT of work, and it slows us down. Now get going, throw that in your cooler, under the shrimp. Tell Gravy the boys said hey…and he owes us for this…”.
Joe laughed as he hopped in his truck and pulled away.
I quickly stashed the contraband and continued on home….
That was yesterday. I allowed the steaks (there were two of them) to thaw overnight in the fridge.
This evening (Monday), I fired up the cast iron skillet and went to work.
Stove was set to 7 (medium high) and the pan was set on the burner to start to heat. Salt and pepper on both sides of the steaks.
As the pan started to smoke, I added some coconut oil, then when it started to spoke, I placed one of the steaks in the pan. The high heat seared it to a lovely shade of brown. Leaving it for only two minutes, I then flipped it, repeating the two-minute sear on the other side.
When there was 30 seconds left, I turned off the burner, and coasted the remaining 30 seconds. I then flipped the steak back over, and placed about a tablespoon of butter on the steak. I then put a lid on the pan and left it to cool down, and allow the butter to melt.
After the sounds of sizzling stopped, I removed the lid and plated the steak. I then poured the meat juices and melted butter back over the steak.
I was ready to cross off another thing of my bucket list. Sitting down, I was so excited, I failed to take any pictures.
The meat tasted faintly of mud, but not unpleasantly so. It may have been my imagination. It was juicy, and the sear was perfect. The texture was like beef, and in truth, the taste was very beef-like. The texture was also very much like beef. After being cooked, it looked more the color of cooked pork, having paled a bit.
I ate every bit, other than one small bite I tried to get my wife to try. She refused, as did my daughters (no surprise). I ended up offering that piece to the dog, who was more than happy to oblige.
I called my uncle earlier today, and told him about the odd coincidence, and the end result. He said he knew what I was given, and that I now owed him a favor…And to call him after I’ve tried it.
I just spoke with him, and told him I loved it. I told him that I’ll be eating my last piece tomorrow for breakfast. (By the time you read this, I’ll have eaten teh rest of the evidence!) He then told me he doesn’t care much for manatee himself, though every time he goes out with Joe and “the boys” for hunting or fishing trips, they want to feed him manatee, or sea turtle, or some other odd wild game.
When I asked why he didn’t like the manatee, he said,
“It tastes too much like porpoise!”
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Oh, Forgot to add, Happy April Fool’s Day!
On that note, be sure to read my article on “Making Rabbit Milk Cheese” from last year.