A View from the Kitchen – The Paradise of Mindlessness
“Trump” lied in representing the losers’ team: “You cheated. Amberjack is not edible.” It was his second justification for their refusal to pay the full bet that he proposed hours earlier: $100 for the largest keeper. He circled our beer-laden beachside dinner table, tossing each of us five winners a 10-dollar bill — his nickname bestowed on a previous trip to the Keys, when that name was synonymous with huckster businessman.
We were at a restaurant in Islamorada, Florida, that prepares and serves the fish that folks catch and bring to the chef.
“You’re the cheat!” we charged in (mostly) mock offense. “The first mate kept it for his dinner.” I crumpled my bill and chucked it at his smirky, sunburned face. “Keep your dirty money, loser!”
As the bill skipped between tables, my comical and opportunistic brother dove from his plastic chair into the white sand, insuring that one didn’t get away. At an adjacent table, a wary pregnant diner beheld our grown man lying on the beach, cradling Alexander Hamilton’s crinkled image as we howled.
“Your brother’s a fool,” observed our high school chum — not the first to have uttered those words over the past three days. It was like that. Ten guys, hot sun, ongoing “hydration,” successive late nights, early mornings, more beverages …
Our “Hooked” fishing derby, named and inspired years earlier by a soon-to-be-married brother-in-law, provides an annual opportunity to park free of alternative suggestions in whatever spot we choose, to leave wet towels on furniture without reprisal, to power down and go off the grid, to insult each other liberally — without worry of someone becoming offended or unfriended — to be generally boy-stupid.
We arrived from Massachusetts, New York and throughout the Sunshine State. Excited to hook up with one of the most respected captains in this renowned fishing mecca — Skip Bradeen of Blue Chip Too — we ultimately headed toward the Atlantic sunrise in 1- to 2-foot seas and perfect conditions.
Throughout the day, we appreciated the expertise and intense hustle of the captain and first mate, who impressed us from the git by perfectly pinwheeling a casting net multiple times onto a blank and giant sea, pulling a “boatload” of bait each time. (I was further humored by the irony that one species of baitfish was called ballyhoo.) Baited hooks were consistently at the ready, the mate was 4 for 4 with the gaff, and despite the local buzz that the fish weren’t biting Skip put us on point multiple times throughout the day, proving excellent at knowing when to “cut bait” and move to a better fish-bearing location.
With plenty in the hold, the day waning and fingers crossed that our yellowfin tuna would be the champ, we anchored at a final “secret spot” where I soon hooked what proved to be the easy winner — though considerably less easy to boat. Resisting from 300 feet down, the amberjack powerfully objected, dragging the reel frequently the entire time.
Back on shore, the old dock scale said 23 pounds, though it felt “more like 30.” (Next year, I’m certain it will be reported closer to 40. As a close friend said: “The older we get, the better we were.”)
After a shower and an hour of resting tired forearms and backs, we arrived at Lazy Days, a local restaurant with an outdoor bar feet from the Gulf’s edge.
As the sun set and the staff delivered platters of our grouper, mahi-mahi, tuna and snapper — in soy sauce and ginger, jalapeno encrusted and pan-blackened, Southern fried, and the house recipe pepper sauce — our, hmm, ballyhoo quickly turned to more focused hungry and grateful groans. We eagerly shared a bounty twice what we could eat, after having already given half of our catch to the crew.
Days of insufficient sleep, the southernmost sun, losing nearly as many fish as we landed, and continuous waves of laughter with a bunch of favorite idiots is the perfect recipe for an extraordinary dinner. So. Damn. Good.
On our final tired and hazy day, the consensus was for a relaxed airboat tour of the Everglades, foregoing the inherent “dangers” lurking at a nearby casino. Our Native American guide, Christian Tigertail, immersed us into this incredibly unique, wild-yet-fragile ecosystem, its history, how it was originally settled by various people fleeing one thing or another, the vanishing mammal population, all things alligator (including their unique reproductive gear), and the many fish swimming around our boat, such as “gar,” as one among us defined as inedible. Our guide corrected: “We eat them all the time. But we won’t eat the catfish that the locals love.” “Trump” winked.
And then from the back my brother shouted, “Let’s hear more about alligator cloaca,” … to yet another round of tired, foolish laughter — a big fat nap whispering my name.
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which are available on this website.