by Ray Allen
Part 2 - The Hannah Sisters
Chapter 4 - The Food: From Formal to Fish Fry
Weadie’s house was fascinating. It was one story, but just as old as the others, and a long rambling L-shaped affair with a high-pitched roof.. It was on a corner, where Oak Street met the Courthouse Square, and sat up above things on the streets. The whole yard was above a high 4 or 5-ft. retaining wall that rose from the sidewalk. You had to climb several steps just to get into the yard. There were porches all around, but various sections had been closed or “glassed in” to make extra rooms here and there. The Read home took in roomers, which meant Weadie and Uncle D rented their unneeded bedrooms to salesmen, new teachers in town, and the like. There was even a small neon sign on a tall post out by the corner saying simply, “Read Home.” Switching on the sign each evening was a ritual we enjoyed. After all, who else had a neon sign! I never remember anyone stopping to stay while we were there, but over the years, we did meet several of Weadie’s roomers. And as we learned, Grandmother Allen also “took in roomers” down the block at her house. The Hannah sisters were always in business.
Inside, Weadie’s house was probably the grandest of them all. Her dining room, especially, was quite elegant, and was usually the site of any really major dinners. I remember one with my parents, all the Hannah sisters, Uncle D, Fred, and several others all gathered around the big table at Weadie’s. We all fit at the table, which tells me today that it was truly as big as it seemed to a child, but what was unforgettable was the food. Some deer hunting party had returned with venison that day, something we had never tasted. Weadie had been assigned to cook this rare feast, since she was supposedly the expert at wild game preparation. All day, she and her cook, Minnie Lee, slaved away in her small, old-fashioned kitchen, using both the antique wood cookstove and the newfangled electric one (They sat side by side.), and produced not only the venison, but a huge selection of vegetables, all deliciously cooked southern style.
I remember delicious fried onions, green beans cooked to death with a savory ham hock, sweet potatoes and of course, corn on the cob and black-eyed peas. I wondered what deer meat would taste like, and I needn’t have worried. That was some of the most tasty, succulent meat I’ve ever eaten—better than most steak. Since then, everyone has always told me it proves Weadie really was an expert, since venison isn’t easy to cook well.
Because this dinner was large and special for some reason, the food was not the only thing brought out. That night, there was all the best china, linen napkins and a huge lace tablecloth, none of which we had seen before. Our mother never bothered with such things, but all the Hannah sisters did, and were justly proud of “Momma’s best silver ladle”, or “Aunt so and so’s glasses.” They kept everything, and believed in the traditions of fine old things. For the venison feast, I remember that Weadie also had candlelight, but not just candles. Her candles were mounted in a crystal epergne. I learned that word since I asked Grandmother Allen what that thing in the middle of the table was. She told me, "Oh, yes, Sugar, that's an epergne." I just accepted it, and later learned that “epergne” is a French word (How did she know it?) and the name of those fancy big things that sit in the middle of old-fashioned tables and hold candles plus little hanging vases and candy dishes. I remember noticing that Weadie's also had a large saucer-like base where each candle stood, and then around the saucer-like bases there were dangling cut crystal drops, like you see on a chandelier. Our meals in Milton were always a treat. We certainly didn't know anybody in Miami who had an epergne!
Some of our meals in Milton were anything but formal. A big tradition in this deep south neighborhood was what everyone called “fish frys.” A fish fry was always outside, always down at the coast (the beach on the Gulf of Mexico, about 20 miles away or on Santa Rosa Sound, a huge inland bay along the coast. ), and always involved lots of people. You didn’t have a fish fry at home. You got together with lots of family and friends and went “down to the coast.” I don’t know why, but I guess it had something to do with being next to the water from which the fish had come. You didn’t have to catch the fish first, you just had to eat it near the water.
I remember several big gatherings, and I don't think the locations were State Parks or other official locations. They were simply big well-used clearings under huge oak trees, right on the natural, undeveloped Gulf coast. And they were always at the end of a sandy rut road where it reached the beach. The parking area and clearing always had big ancient oaks. These were obviously places where people from Milton simply went to have fish frys, and they had been doing that forever. All those spots are surely fancy condo sites today, but back in the nineteen forties and fifties, there was almost no building along the magnificent coast in Santa Rosa County. Only a few rich folks had “camps” there—small second homes--and they were for fishing, nothing like the waterfront showplaces of today.
I remember groups of 20 to 50 people, surely church groups on outings, big birthday parties—or some other reason for big gatherings. Somehow the Hannah sisters, Fred and we were invited. It always happened at dusk, with the rolling waves of the Gulf in full view. The people who were running things set up clean oil drums on huge campfires, and poured in the grease—gallons of it. When it was bubbling, battered fish fillets were plunged in on sticks until they were golden brown. At other bubbling drums nearby, all the women competed creating the other essential item required at a fish fry—hush puppies. We learned that these were spicy little fritters that were also done in the hot deep fat, and then broken open and buttered while they were hot. Like with biscuits for breakfast, every lady there was proud of her own recipe for hush puppies.
Thinking about the fish frys and the wild natural coastline reminds me of our trips to go “floundering.” This was where Fred was king; he knew all about this special type of fishing. We did some “crabbing” down at the coast too, but what I remember the most vividly are the evenings we went “floundering.” It had to be evening, because you catch flounders only after dark. Of course, my sister and I had neither seen nor heard of such a creature as a flounder, but we found out it was a fish, and not an ordinary one. Flounders are delicious white-meat pan fish, but in the wild, they’re unique. They have the curious habit of lying flat on the bottom on mud or sand flats in shallow water. They’ve done this for so many centuries, their second eye—the one that would be looking directly into the mud otherwise—has migrated to the other side of their head. Yes, this fish has both eyes on one side of its head. Of course, when Fred explained that to me very matter of factly, I couldn’t believe it, but when I first saw one, I was stunned. It was all true. Flounders are a living example of evolution! And they’re not pretty.
Catching these grotesque, but delicious fish was as unusual as their appearance, but much more fun. No rods were used. No hooks. Instead you had to have a washtub, car battery, bright light, and a spear. In our case, you also had to be willing to wade right out into Santa Rosa Sound after dark, and slog along on the muddy bottom in waist-deep water with your sneakers on. The whole time you waded you wondered what ferocious fish may be lurking nearby. And were there alligators? Probably. We never saw one.
When we’d go floundering, the car trip was a lot like going to a fish fry. Fred knew just when to leave the house, since we had to arrive at the coast at sunset. He also knew exactly where to dive off the paved highway and into the pine woods on a seemingly endless rut road. Soon we’d come out at the coast, park the car, and walk down to the windswept beach. The sun would be going down, and there was not a building or any other people in sight.
Fred would float the galvanized washtub in the gentle waves, put in the battery, and hook up the floodlight. He always had one of those lights with a big cone-shaped reflector of shiny aluminum, and once he hooked it up to the big battery in the tub, it gave off a super-bright beam, which Fred immediately directed straight down into the water.
Then it began. As a group, we waded slowly out into the water, towing the washtub with battery behind us. Fred always manned the light, and shined it around searching the bottom for the unsuspecting flounders. The first time we did this, I was amazed that we found so many of them They were everywhere! They never swam off unless we stepped near them, since they were drawn to the light. They just laid there.
Once one was spotted, the spear soon found its way to that spot. In an hour or so, the bucket that was in the washtub along with the battery was full of flounders, and we’d be ready for the long ride home. We’d pack up everything in the trunk of Fred’s car, and I remember that the spear we used was really a broomstick with a nail sticking out the end. Our floundering didn’t involve any fancy fishing equipment!
The next day, one of the Hannah sisters would be serving great flounder dishes, and they were really special, since we knew we had caught them ourselves with our washtub, battery, spotlight and spear.