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Remembering The Fish House and Mr. Tall WhiteHair
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain
When I was 18 years old, a proud new graduate of Port St. Joe High School, I got a job at the Fish House on Mexico Beach. It was the mid-1980s and I needed to earn some money before heading to college in the fall.
Somehow Teresa King, who owned the Fish House at the time with her husband Chris, saw fit to hire me, a girl with no experience in the restaurant business but who was willing to work. I wanted to prove to her that I could do it so that she wouldn’t be disappointed in her decision to give me a shot.
The Fish House, back in that era of its existence, was not painted yellow as it was in recent years, just before Hurricane Michael hit. The wood siding was left a natural weathered grayish-brown. The dining room was to the right as you entered the front door, with a hostess station just inside. The section that serves as the dining room now was partially outdoors, and that’s where the bar was.
Now, I knew all about seafood, having lived in the Panhandle for most of my life with parents who knew how to make it just right. I knew that Mrs. Curcie, who ran the kitchen at that time, was cooking it just right, too. She made the most tender shrimp, the tastiest crab fingers, and the best pasta and other dishes I’d had … besides my own mom’s, of course. She fed me well that summer.
The only thing I couldn’t get behind on the Fish House menu was the green-colored aspic salad; it was a gelatinous horseradish-spiked concoction, a holdover from the Julia Child-era recipes of the 1950s and ‘60s. Quite a few of the older tourists really seemed to love it. I, on the other hand, balked at the idea of horseradish jello, which is how I imagined it.
I loved meeting the tourists who came through the restaurant. It was interesting to learn where they were from and what they did back in their home states. I enjoyed telling them about Northwest Florida and the amazing food they were about to eat from Mrs. Curcie’s kitchen.
One day after I’d been on the job for a few weeks, a table of four older folks were seated in my section. I only remember one of them now, a tall man with a loud, deep voice and a nice head of white hair. He wanted a drink; a martini, specifically, and I was expected to make it. You see, on weeknights there was no bartender working, so waitstaff had to mix everything themselves. And though I was too young to legally drink, I was old enough to mix and serve alcoholic beverages.
I panicked, having no idea what went into a martini. I asked a waiter named Mark for instructions, which he gave as he raced by me with a tray of steaming hot seafood for his customers. I stirred together the gin, vermouth and so forth, trying to remember how Mark said to do it.
I knew something was supposed to go into the drink once I had safely poured it into the martini glass, a nice finishing touch. But what? Instead of what really should have been dropped into the classic martini, a nice, salty green olive, I made the wrong guess. I dropped in a maraschino cherry.
I really knew nothing about alcohol; I was raised Southern Baptist, y’all.
I took the drink to Mr. Tall WhiteHair, and set it down before him on the table, and he looked at it with a blank stare, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Then he threw his head back and laughed the most genuine laugh I’d heard all day. He was charmed by the innocence of his young waitress, it seems, and would not even let me remake the drink for him. He drank it, cherry and all, and then he left me a generous tip. What a nice man.
That was 34 years ago, and I will never forget how, when I expected to be scolded or made fun of, this man enjoyed the moment and was kind enough not to humiliate me. Our response to service workers really matters, as you can see. Be kind, be patient, and tip well. And maybe don’t ask an 18 year old to make you a martini. Trust me on that one.
As a gentle reminder of a different time, I’ll share with you a recipe for horseradish aspic. Perhaps this one is not exactly how it was made at the Fish House, but it seems close, to me.
Will any of you make it? I don’t know, honestly. Maybe not. But it’s a unique part of our culinary history, so it’s worth considering.
If any of you do give it a try, please send a picture of your finished product to [email protected] so I can enjoy the experiment with you!
At the Fish House, it was cut into squares and served on a bed of lettuce on a salad plate.
To those who remember the days at the truly “Old Florida” Fish House restaurant, and to those still mourning the loss of most recent owner Erik Spilde, whom I never had the honor of meeting, I wish you well and hope for good things to come for you all.
And to Mr. Tall WhiteHair, thank you for a memory that still makes me chuckle every time.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Holmes County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three young adult sons, who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.