Rick Bragg on his first grouper sandwich
Requiem for a Fish Sandwich? By Rick Bragg? In Garden & Gun? Yes please. I don't think it's online yet, or at least I haven't been able to find it, so I'll just go ahead and type up one of my favorite parts:
I will never forget my first. It was more than twenty years ago. I arrived in Clearwater, Florida, dead broke, except for rent money and some change in a pickle jar. I came to write for the Clearwater bureau of what was then the St. Petersburg Times, one of the great newspapers. I have always had a fascination with palm trees. The Gulf Coast seemed exotic, and still does; I don't care how many snowbirds cross my path in black socks and Bermuda shorts. But by the time I paid for a concrete-block, one-bedroom apartment, I did not have money for furniture, or food. I lived three weeks on banana sandwiches, washing them down with cold water from plastic jugs my mother filled before I left home. Florida water, she knew, was not fit for drinking or even putting out a brush fire. I read a paperback copy of Lonesome Dove, twice, on a bare terrazzo floor, and I listened to my stomach gurgle. After my first paycheck, reporters invited me to lunch for a grouper sandwich. The only fish sandwich I had ever had came in a sack with an action figure called a Hamburglar. My expectations were not high, but I was hungry.
To this day, I do not know if it was the sandwich or the scenery. The sand of Clearwater Beach stretched wide and white to water the color of emeralds. Mermaids were everywhere. The place was called, I believe, Julie's, one of many there known for their fish sandwiches, for grouper, and mahi. The grouper was grilled, dripping with cool, lemony tartar sauce and dressed with a slick slice of genuine, ripe, non-gassed tomato, an antidote for every pink, bad tomato I ever had. God ripened that tomato, just for me.
The first bit was clean and not fishy, but the thing I remember most is the consistency, the flesh firm, thick, and meaty, with none of those gray streaks of nastiness that taste like fish gone bad. I would have them, over time, grilled, fried, and blackened, from almost every kind of grouper in the Gulf, Atlantic, and Caribbean. I remember whole days of my life better because of them. I loved them, me and everyone else, and I guess we loved them about to death.