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January 21st 2009
Published: January 21st 2009
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Jax BeachJax BeachJax Beach

Gratuitous photo of the beach on December 31st

She crab soup



Brain on the phone with parties unknown: “Yep, I’m taking them to Barbara Jean’s for the she-crab soup…“

Brain from the front seat, apropos nothing: “We gotta go to Barbara Jean’s for the she-crab soup…“

Brian lived in the Jacksonville area and Barbara Jean’s was the nineteenth hole for him and his friends on Sunday afternoons. There’s nothing like local knowledge when it comes to where to eat, so it looks like I’m having the she-crab soup. Thanks to Brian’s exuberance, it looks everyone’s having the she-crab soup.

“Wait until you get to Barbara Jean’s and try the She-crab soup…” he says, at a rest stop cafeteria.

He was watching Ann turn her nose up at the buffet fixins (south of the Potomac River, “fixins“ is a food group, gravy is a beverage, and mac and cheese is the barometer for a decent meat-n-three). Ann, incidentally, is something of an authority on the subject of mac and cheese. What does she look for? The three C’s; color, consistency, and crust. It can’t be orange, that spells K-R-A-F-T (or, horrors, Velveeta). It should be buff in color tending to yellow; creamy but not soupy,
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Still smirking because I was on the beach on December 31st
with a slight crust on the top so you can tell it was baked, not dumped into a pan and stirred with a powdered mix. Katie’s meat and three, in Nashville’s downtown arcade (5th Ave) sets the bar. The reigning champion, however, is Ivey’s in Madison, Alabama (101 Ivory Place 256-461-8450). Madison is near Huntsville. You may think a trip to Huntsville is a bit much just for macaroni, but then you have to ask yourself, “How important is my mac to me?” As for Ann, she mentions the mac and cheese at Ivey’s almost as often as Brian mentions the she-crab soup at Barbara Jean’s.

Which brings me back to eating in Jacksonville. Barbara Jean’s has a handful of locations on the Atlantic coast, so check out www.barbarajeans.com for more info and consider buying their cookbook. There’s at least one page you’ll end up dog-earing. It’s moderately priced with an emphasis on local seafood, which means crab cakes. The day‘s special? “Shrimp burger.” What’s a shrimp burger? I’d never heard of it either, but I had to know. You’ll want to try it, too. I haven’t tasted tartar sauce this good anywhere outside the Pike Place Market.
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I smirk, therefore I am

So, while I’m waiting for a cup of soup (guess what kind) and trying to put a little butter on a chunk of jalapeno cornbread that crumbles if you talk loudly near it, Brain is briefing me on the University of Nebraska’s vaunted Black Shirt Defense. As college football traditions go, I have to like this one. I respect anyone who respects their defense (they win championships, I hear) ; but as far as I know, nobody else has institutionalized respect for their defense to this degree (feel free to correct me if you know otherwise). I got the short version, but was advised to look the rest up on Huskerpedia.

“Sorry, look it up on what?”
“Huskerpedia.”
“Huskerpedia?”
“Huskerpedia.”

Now, funny things happen when access to a broadcast medium becomes easily accessible and practically free. For example: If you count up the number of living alumnae a given university has and divide by two (guessing about half of them care) you get a number that I’m just going make up: half a million. CBS won’t bother trying to reach this audience specifically (unless it‘s Ohio State), so graduated cornhuskers used to be lucky to get the occasional
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Institutionalized veneration of defense
newsletter devised by a midlevel university place-holder who wanted to make his secretary’s life a burden to her the last week of every month. Now that’s changed and, to be honest, it’s getting a little out of hand. I looked and, sure enough, Gatorpedia, Bamapedia, FightingIrishpedia. You name it, they’re pedia-ing it. It‘s called “narrowcasting” and it means any semiliterate hick can live blog his passionate concern for the state of the Crimson Tide’s passing attack to a broader audience than his buddies at the Northport Citco. I grant that the inability to throw consistently on third and eight is a legitimate concern throughout the Heart of Dixie and I certainly enjoy the fact that I can hear people other than Kirk Herbstreet weighing in on it, it’s just a subject that deserves a little once-over from somebody’s editorial staff before it gets inflicted on an unsuspecting public previously unaccustomed to double-negatives. I mean, how many run-on’s can a reader tolerate? Suppose I’m in Mafioso’s and happen to refer to Brent Musberger as the Yoko Ono of ESPN’s College Gameday crew; not only is it going to get repeated back to me before I’m done with my fried ravioli, but I could go to the game in Tuscaloosa on Saturday and that joke is going to intercept me via cell phone before I’m through Bessemer.

Not very relevant, I realize, but what’s a travel story without a little cultural fabric? For instance: Big 12 fans don’t wear as much camouflage to the game as people in certain other conferences. Don’t think that’s worth knowing? Sure it is. “Can I wear this to Death Valley?” This is actually one of several differences I might mention, actually, but then I’d hate to stray from the point which was supposed to be about traveling to the Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, and she-crab soup.

Before I explain that however, I have to get through North Alabama to Huntsville and I’d like to do it without resorting to the tired and, frankly, lazy old device of simply reciting the names of roadside establishments in the vicinity of Sand Mountain. So I’ll pass over The Booby Bungalow exotic dance show and I won’t pause to mention Bubba’s II Fine Attire and Formal Wear in Guntersville, not even to note the roman numerals.

Huntsville is home to Grissom High School, which has no windows. I
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Okay, no park looks it's best in January, but it's really quite nice.
don’t know why it has no windows just like I don‘t know why it has blue police lights in the cafeteria ceiling, but if asked to hazard a guess, I’ll blame either ill-advised value engineering or a half-baked psychological experiment to encourage student’s to concentrate by giving them no respite from their dreary environment no matter where they look (as if high school students couldn‘t find distraction without a window, ever heard of a thing called a skirt?). I’m not sure which of the two would be the more irresponsible, but I’m pretty sure doing this to kids is illegal or should be. Grissom High is named after the astronaut, and Huntsville is the center of aerospace engineering and defense contracting for the Southeastern US, possibly for the nation. Who knows how these things happen, but besides the Space and Rocket Center, it has yielded some odd results. I remember two things to expect from Grissom High, a good wrestling team and a good math team. Actually, it seemed to be the same guys on both teams. This is what happens when actual rocket scientists get canned by NASA during budget cuts and end up teaching high school physics so their kids don‘t have to move to Cape Canaveral. The hyper-concentration of PhD’s in North Alabama does not explain why the big thing to catch if you’re in town is a hockey game. Or does it? Wouldn’t a physicist find ice hockey inherently fascinating? Or are many of them transplants from Montreal? Maybe it’s just a coincidence (like both Jose Conseco and Mark McGuire being from Huntsville), but between the UAH Chargers and the Huntsville Havoc, the arena is booked up during the season. I hear a Havoc game is a can’t-miss opportunity.

Huntsville’s downtown park is quite nice, especially since the new hotel at the far end decided to go with a Venice approach to landscaping. I don’t know if that’s part of a deal they cut with the city, but it‘s really nice. The park is home to some of the ugliest ducks in the world. The hotel seems to have invited more photogenic fowl to navigate their canal.

An important stop in Huntsville is a local pool hall and sports bar called Chips & Salsa (I didn’t get the address, but www.chipsandsalsasportsbar.com will give you directions. They’re also a brief write up on a website called Fooswatch.com (if you need to find a place where you can play foosball in Belize, for example, fooswatch is the place to turn). Chips & Salsa is every bit a local's establishment, which means all I had to do was ask someone at the bar what I wanted to eat and I was a happy guy. Brian has a business in electronics installation and he wired the place fit to make any sports fan burst with pride. On game day you'd have to close your eyes, stuff your fingers in your ears, and run outside to miss a play. It's football panorama. The pool hall portion is pretty serious and now I know why, every time Ann comes back from Huntsville, she wants to play pool and proceeds to kill me something like five games to one.

I mentioned they have food there. I tried the chile colorado and now wish I could take a month's supply of it home with me. Actually, they gave me a month's supply; that's their standard portion. I was right back there the next morning for something called "burrito asada." I'm not sure "burrito asada" is authentic Mexican, but it is simply awesome. I asked for a side of the colorado sauce and it came with what appeared to be the better part of a cow that had been thrown into a chipper-shredder, sautéed, and rolled in a tortilla with cheese on top for under five dollars. While watching Bama lose to Utah? Could I be happier? The only thing I ate on the whole trip that even came close was the she-crab soup at Barbara Jean's.

Alright, so, she-crab soup:
She-crab soup is Barbara Jean's specialty crab bisque. If you don't know what a bisque is, I am very sorry for you and consider your culinary existence impoverished. A bisque, if I can explain this without Speck interrupting (which is unlikely), is made from any crustacean you prefer sautéed, pureed, and then cooked again into a cream based soup with a little sherry. It comes out pink to dark red and will make any seafood fan weep with joy. There's an herbivorous version made with tomato puree if you're that sort. Crawfish bisque is, according to Paul Prudhomme, THE definitive Cajun dish. The quality of the crawfish bisque tells you everything you need to know about a Cajun restaurant. Barbara Jean's is not a Cajun resteraunt, per se, but their cooking smacks of Delta and their crab bisque is worth going a few miles out of your way even if it's just to find out that the golf course Brian insisted on going to in midwinter has a two hour wait for a tee time. Good thing I brought those clubs. Rattle rattle.

While I'm on the subject of eating in Jacksonville, or rather drinking in Jacksonville, there's one last thing I have to mention, and this is just because I'm thinking about New Orleans. When Ann finally stopped convulsing from the frigid water in the hotel pool (no, I didn't push her in, thank you, she actually jumped in of her own volition) we talked briefly of a shared love of mimosas. A mimosa is made with roughly one part good, fresh orange juice, and one part cheap, lousy champagne. The quality of the champagne is really irrelevant, it's the quality of the orange juice that matters. We hypothesized (made up) that it was invented by the Health Department in New Orleans as a way of preventing scurvy amongst the cities more upper class inebriates. Some guys add strawberries, but then some guys wear a skirt and heals on weekends when their coworkers aren't around. I skip the strawberries. It's not a Bloody Marry. The purpose of a mimosa is not to ease last night's hangover. The purpose of a mimosa is to lay the ground work for tomorrow's hangover.

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