Marsha Dean Phelts is a daughter of American Beach.
She grew up vacationing on the shores of the African-American enclave on Amelia Island, in far northeast Florida. In the days of segregation and after, American Beach was a haven for families, and also the famous. Cab Calloway, Hank Aaron and Zora Neale Hurston were among the beach's well-known visitors.
To hear Phelts tell it, though, it seems like all anyone did on American Beach is eat. Especially shrimp.
"We just had to find so very many ways to do shrimp," she says by phone.
With so many people making a living shrimping — some even got paid in shellfish — recipes that featured the tasty crustacean were at a premium.
Phelts, 64, gathers about a dozen favorites in The American Beach Cookbook (University Press of Florida, 2008). There's Smothered Shrimp and Coconut Fried Shrimp. There's Crab-coated Shrimp Chops and Shrimp and Sausage Fettuccine. And there's the especially intriguing Ernie Albert's Crustacean Delicacy, served over hot grits.
Ernie Albert is just one of many American Beach residents — permanent and part time — who shared their recipes and old black-and-white photos. Phelts will talk about her "community cookbook" on Saturday at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading (see Page 5E for details.)
There are nearly 300 recipes in the book and they speak to more than cooking. They tell of a community that expressed love through food and open-arms entertaining.
But still, it wasn't always easy prying those family specialties from recipe boxes, Phelts says.
Some people said flat-out "no" until the promise of being in a book changed their minds. Phelts couldn't imagine an American Beach cookbook without Francina Carter King's dill-laced, shrimp-spiked potato salad or Evelyn Jones' Southern-Style Deviled Eggs.
"I've never had a deviled egg like that one. There's so much spunk and kick to it," Phelts says. "Everybody's got a deviled egg recipe, but this is more than a deviled egg."
Maybe it's the 1/2 teaspoon of Emeril's Fish Rub that kicks it up. Even vintage recipes evolve, thanks to the Food Network.
It took Phelts 11 years to complete the cookbook, owing to procrastination, she says. But that gave her plenty of time to go house to house and sample the legendary recipes she remembered from her youth. She also had to perfect nearly 60 of her own recipes and test the others.
The journey conjured many lovely memories.
"When you live at a beach, you get a lot of company and you get a lot of opportunity to showcase" the food you make, she says. "We always try to make the event as much fun for the company as the host."
Besides being a passionate cook, Phelts, a native of Jacksonville, is a local historian. Her book An American Beach for African Americans (University Press of Florida) laid the groundwork for the cookbook.
Though American Beach doesn't have "the thump, bang and boom" it used to, Phelts says it continues to hold cultural and historical significance.
"My 2-year-old granddaughter still needs to know where her Big Mama grew up," she says. "She can see this as a special place and a treasure."
And surely she'll taste the good life.
"I'm going to have her working on some peanut butter-banana cookies any day now," Phelts says.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.