For two years at the turn of the century, my wife and I spent our winters in Gulf Shores, Alabama, five months each time, in a modest, seaside cottage painted a lovely periwinkle, perched on stilts above the sand. With two bedrooms and two bathrooms, an expansive deck looking out on the Gulf of Mexico, and a large, fully-equipped kitchen to enjoy, we were as happy as two transient northerners could be.
We golfed three times a week at several of the south Alabama courses, toured the area extensively, including a couple of ferry trips to Mobile, and walked the beach every day. Despite the chilly waters, we even managed to frolic in the Gulf on a number of occasions. On our off-days, we planted ourselves on the deck, eyes almost blinded by the sun’s glare on the whiter-than-white sand, entranced by the ever-shimmering aqua-emerald-blue waters of the Gulf.
Fortunately, we had decamped to warmer climes nearer to Sarasota by the time Hurricane Ivan ripped through the area in 2004, destroying the quaint community we had lived in, leaving us with nothing but pictures and fond memories.
The fondest of those is of a place we learned about from Willie, a wizened caddy who regularly humped both our bags at one of the golf courses. Once he learned we were seafood lovers, he insisted we visit Billy’s Seafood, a local store in Bon Secour.
“Y’all gon’ thank me,” he said. “Jes’ make sure to talk to Bubba. Tell ‘im Willie sent y’all by.”
We found Billy’s Seafood at the end of River Rd. on the Bon Secour River, a haphazard collection of buildings hard by the piers where the fishing trawlers and shrimp-boats tied up. The motto emblazoned on the main building said it all: IF IT SWIMS…WE’VE GOT IT!
Before going inside, we strolled down to the piers, marvelling at (and smelling!) the variety of seafood being transferred by conveyor-belt from the boats to the waiting fishmongers—shrimp, crabs, oysters, Flounder, Mahi-Mahi, Amberjack, Grouper, Tuna, Snapper, and Cobia. Once in the store, we saw tub after tub of the harvest, freshly shelled, filleted, and cleaned, all being raided by hordes of eager customers.
Being first-timers, we were a tad reticent to join the throng until we found Bubba, who turned out to be a large, middle-aged man with a gray-white beard, smelling of fish, clad in white pants, white t-shirt, and white apron, all stained from his hands-on approach to filling orders. He knew Willie, of course, and welcomed us with open-armed hugs to which we submitted somewhat apprehensively.
Despite the crush of customers, Bubba toured us through the place, offering advice as to what might please our palates. I don’t remember the entirety of our first order, but I do know we came home with a bag of Big Daddy Jumbo shrimp in the box, and Bubba’s ‘secret’ recipe for preparing it.
“If y’all do ‘zactly as I say, these shrimp gon’ be the best you ever ate. I damn-sure guarantee y’all gon’ come back here an’ hug mah neck!”
To this day, twenty years later, it remains one of our very favourite dishes. We started by washing and butterflying the shrimp, then inserting a sliver of jalapeño and shard of sharp cheddar between the folds. Next we wrapped each one in a slice of hickory-smoked bacon, held fast with one or two toothpicks, and then marinated the batch in tangy Italian dressing for a couple of hours.
Bubba’s directions specified grilling over charcoal, but the best we could do was a propane-fired grill, an old but well-maintained rig on the deck. It had three burners, so I placed the shrimp on the unlit middle one, and cooked them slowly, convection-style, using the two outside burners. The timing was crucial according to Bubba, but he offered no specifics, saying it was up to the cook to judge the precise moment when they’d be done to perfection. More by random chance than culinary skill, I managed to cook the shrimp just right that first time, taking them off the grill before the bacon got too crisp or the cheese all melted away.
We ate them on the deck, watching the sun sink lazily into the Gulf—accompanied by a Cajun rice concoction, a light salad, a crisp Pinot Grigio, and a lovely Mozart album on the stereo. As I recall, our impression at the finish of the meal was that we should have cooked more of them.
And indeed we have in the years since that first feast. The shrimp we find in Canada do not compare to Bubba’s, of course, but they suffice. And when we are in Florida, we try to buy the freshest we can find so as to most closely approximate the texture and taste we remember so fondly. We often eat them now with red pepper added, and a pasta dish.
We shopped at Billy’s Seafood several more times during those two years in Alabama, and spoke with Bubba each time his shifts matched our visits. On one of those occasions, we presented him with a bottle of bourbon to thank him for his kindness, a gift he graciously accepted.
I must confess, however, that we never did hug his neck.