I have what may be considered an odd hobby: I read real estate listings for homes that are available along our beautiful beaches as if they were novels. How amazing and perfect some of those new homes are!
The ones I like to read about dot our coast from Alligator Point all the way over to Mexico Beach. They have stunning gourmet kitchens with every feature a cook like me could dream of, including quartz countertops, akin to the quartz that makes up our sand on the Northwest Florida beaches so many of us call home. They have gorgeous furnishings, and ample space to spread out and enjoy the luxury in each well-appointed room. They typically have at least one roomy screened porch, with comfy rockers and swings to make every moment at the beach peaceful and perfect. Some even have pools filled with crystal clear water, within view of the waves of the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. They are ideal homes. I admire the creativity that goes into them so much.
However… those are not the homes I gravitate to when I actually want to go to the beach with my family. I stayed in a gorgeous place like that in Pensacola once; it was perfectly appointed with an amazing view, but it didn’t give me the feeling I grew up with on St. Joe Beach. That’s the feeling I search for, in reality. When staying on our “Forgotten Coast,” I tend to make other, simpler choices, because I’m chasing that “native” feeling.
There was a cute little duplex on Mexico Beach my sister, my sons and I stayed in a number of times; it was called Great Beach Escape. It was located at 105. South 31st Street, just across from Cathey’s Hardware.
It was a little cement block duplex with a screened porch, built decades earlier by people who wanted servicemen and women to have a place near the Air Force base to vacation with their families. That’s according to a family member who was a teenager in the ‘50s and stayed in a home like that with her family. Her uncle owned some of those properties, she told me, so her family was able to stay there and enjoy the perfect sands of Mexico Beach in those days.
Flash forward 60 years; when my family first stayed in the little duplex it was 2015. Walking into it was like walking into the past, for us. It was clean, well located, and simply updated, albeit not with high-end finishes. It was small, with two bedrooms that shared a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. Best of all, there was a nice outdoor shower and, of course, that screened-in front porch. We loved it!
My favorite part of it was that I could get up in the morning and sit on the front porch, listening to the nearby waves. When we were ready for coffee, we would slip on some shorts and flip flops and walk over to Caribbean Coffee for amazing cinnamon rolls and a hot latte before heading down to the beach.
Great Beach Escape wasn’t beach front, but it was only a couple of hundred steps to a sandy path. We’d load the cart the homeowner provided with beach chairs and umbrellas, and walk down to the beautiful sand that always felt so familiar, soft and warm, like the hug of a beloved friend.
We rented that little duplex three or four more times, and it began to feel like an old friend to us, too. We loved it, and the owner, Mrs. Nicholson from Tallahassee, was such a lovely person. I enjoyed emailing her and telling her we were ready to come back to her sweet little house.
But then, of course, the worst happened. Hurricane Michael came. After many decades of standing up to - and surviving - tropical storms and hurricanes, Great Beach Escape was finally overcome. According to numerous published reports, all the old cement block homes that were built along Mexico Beach essentially floated off their slabs and were washed away.
My sister and I mourned the loss of the house as if we’d lost a family friend. We even went to the site and just stared, not quite believing what we were seeing, at the slab that remained. Where was the porch? The shower? The shed full of toys and chairs? How could this be?
More than two years have now passed since that dreadful storm, and we still miss the little beach house. We get homesick for it. There was something about the feel of staying there that felt as if we were connected to those who had come before, and their love of our beach the way it was during our ‘70s childhood. That was before there were condos and homes built on the beachfront. That was when the paper mill still supplied families with a solid income, and the horizon was dotted with shrimp boats. That was our childhood.
Great Beach Escape’s demise felt like the loss of part of our lives here, honestly. I can understand if folks from other parts of the country may not care as much about all of that when they come visit, if they didn’t experience it as children. They are free to love those condos and beautiful luxury homes. I don’t begrudge them that one iota.
But for me, Great Beach Escape is the ideal. It was the one that made me feel as if I was not an observer of the beach from an ivory tower, but that I was an actual part of it, somehow. I will never get over that feeling, and I will keep chasing it, no matter where we stay next. I believe that it's important to preserve that feeling in those of us who remain from those special days when a cement block house near the beach was the dream.
The last time we stayed at Great Beach Escape, I made our family my mom’s simple fried shrimp. Whenever I make it her way, it takes me right back to the old days on St. Joe Beach; I get that native feeling.
Here is her simple recipe, followed by her recipe for potato salad, which is my all-time favorite way to make it. I hope you’ll like it, too, and maybe grab some of that old-school, native-Floridian feeling for yourself while you do, whether you're in a gulf front luxury home or in a tiny shack a few blocks from the beach. Just enjoy it, wherever you are. You are blessed to be on the Forgotten Coast.
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 are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com or contact her at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on The Star: What Southern Folks Eat: Chasing that Old Florida feeling