Fishing one lazy October afternoon, the reds weren't biting, so the conversation turned to one of my favorite subjects: food. "Now I can fry up some fish," Dave Markett boasted. "In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to pull up on an island, make a fire and have a little shore lunch with the day's catch." Markett, a third-generation Floridian who works as a fishing guide when he's not hunting alligators, lamented the fact that he hadn't had a good backwoods fish fry in quite a while. "We could cook some redfish, some gator tail …" I began, but then my cell phone rang. It was my old friend Billy Moore, stone crab purveyor, collard green aficionado and campfire enthusiast. "Great timing," I told Moore as I proceeded with my plan.
It didn't take long to round up the grub needed to make a first-class feast. Moore, the creative genius behind Billy's Stone Crab restaurant on Tierra Verde, would bring the crustaceans and some fresh collards that he grew in his backyard on Pass-a-Grille.
Moore called an ol' Georgia boy named Fitz Lee, a Southern gentleman and master of the Johnny Cake, to fry his cornmeal cakes in a cast iron pan over an open fire.
Markett, the charter boat captain, would bring fish and gator tail if he was lucky enough to bag a reptile in the days preceding our cookout.
My friend, Grand Master Angler Dean Pickel, a.k.a. GMA for short, would smoke some mackerel and make his super-secret fish spread. Ex-beach lifeguard Joe Bill Lain, the Surfing Sage of Roger Mills County, Okla., would brew some cowboy coffee.
Ranger Jim Wilson, the supervisor of Pinellas' Fort De Soto County Park; Peter Clark, the executive director of Tampa Bay Watch; and a few Times employees who came to observe an outdoors editor in action; would be the taste testers.
Cast iron cooking
Like most Boy Scouts, I love to build fires. So I got to our Fort De Soto campsite at the crack of dawn and lit the logs so we would have a nice pile of ashes by lunchtime.
I set up my old cowboy-style tripod over the fire.
Cast iron skillets are great for frying — everything from chicken to catfish — but a Dutch oven is my weapon of choice when it comes time to simmer a hearty backwoods dis, such as my Son of a Gun Stew.
My pot is made by a company called Lodge, which has been in the Appalachian mountain town of South Pittsburg, Tenn. (population 3,300) since William McKinley was president in the late 1890s.
If properly cared for, cast iron cookware can last for generations. My cooking coach, Harriet Jackson, whose Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park has been selling cast iron cookware since 1966, has been using the same Dutch oven for more than 60 years.
The finished product
It took Moore about two hours to cook his collards over the fire. The stone crabs, which had already been steamed, didn't take long to warm in another pot.
While Lee fired his Johnny Cakes, Markett fried the redfish and gator tail in a cast iron skillet as his girlfriend, Theresa Giampia, blackened some cobia in another pan.
Waiting for the main dishes, the guests nibbled on smoked mackerel and Pickel's special fish spread.
It took about an hour, with a half dozen people cooking, to bring it all together.
Ranger Jim, himself an avid angler, was one of the first to clean his plate.
"I give it a thumbs up," he said. "I think we should make this an annual event."
Lain wanted to make sure he didn't mess up the coffee, so he did a little research on a thing called "The Google" he had heard about from a cowboy from Texas named George W. Bush.
"It said throw an egg in it," Lain explained. "I don't know … I kind of like mine fried."
Making cowboy coffee is not as precise a science as cooking Johnny Cakes. Just fill your pot with water, grab a handful of ground coffee (two if you are feeling really tired) and drop it in.
Then sit back, tell a few stories, whittle yourself a toothpick, heck, you can even smoke 'em if you got 'em. Then, once the pot starts steaming, crack a raw egg in there and it will help settle the grinds.
So named because they were once the staple of Confederate soldiers, a.k.a. Johnny Rebs, during the Civil War, these cornmeal creations are a must for any campfire cookout.
Lee, who grew up in southeast Georgia, buys his fine ground cornmeal at the Bradley Country Store, which is located north of Tallahassee.
He mixes the corn flour with diced onions, seedless jalapenos, salt and cayenne pepper.
"Mix to taste," Lee said. "If you like them thick, use less water."
Lee said he likes to fry his cakes in lard, but his health-conscious friend, Moore, made him use vegetable oil.
"Cook them until they're crisp," he said. "It's not rocket science."