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A BITE OF BIG CYPRESS

At Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe, conversation and good Old Florida food are plentiful, and nature is close - really close.
Published Apr. 12, 2007|Updated Dec. 13, 2009

One time a big alligator chased me through Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe in the Big Cypress preserve, bellowing until the rafters shook. Shouting for help, I escaped by jumping on top of a table. From the safety of the kitchen, Joanie hollered, "You're on your own, mister.'' There was little I could do but eat a bowl of lima bean stew while standing next to the bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce.

I'm lying, of course, except for the part about lima bean stew, which I eat whenever I stop at Joanie's. As for the alligator: I would like to think a live crocodilian will one day make an appearance inside the only restaurant in the 725,000-acre national preserve.

Things happen at Joanie's that will probably never happen at another restaurant in Florida.

Like the time four years ago when I was wolfing down a bowl of lima bean stew at dusk and a bear showed up behind Joanie's to devour her garbage.

"I didn't know Florida had any bears,'' said the patron who almost knocked me over as he fled the porch nearest the bruin.

"Of course Florida has black bears,'' sniffed the middle-aged pedant. By the time the natural history lesson was over and I got back to the table, my lima bean stew was cold. You

want to know something? It was still the best lima bean stew I'd eaten in a goodly spell.

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With so much of modern Florida pallid and boring - lacking any appreciable sense of place - it is always a pleasure to visit the hinterlands and find that Joanie's is exactly as I left it: dimly lit, cigarette butts standing at attention in the back porch ashtrays, the possibility of encountering something reptilian on or off the plate.

Joanie serves up vittles from the swamp (frog legs, catfish and gator) and from the saltwater Everglades (blue crab and grouper). Her lima bean stew, an acquired taste, is a South Florida speciality, as is rattlesnake.

The skin from the rattlesnake hangs on the wall.

"It got killed on the Tamiami Trail,'' Joanie explains. "The chef ran out and got it, skinned it and cooked it up. One of the waitresses said, 'Have some, Joanie, it tastes like tuna fish.' I said, 'I've ate tuna fish, so that means I don't have to eat rattlesnake.' ''

Snake, alas, is an irregular item on the menu.

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A half century ago, there were plenty of places like Joanie's scattered about our state, little mom-and-pop joints with personality. Most went out of business, crushed by restaurants with golden arches and "no surprises here'' modernity.

Joanie Griffin has a saying: "If you want fast food, go to Miami or go to Naples.'' Both, by the way, are 50 miles and a half-century away.

Once I ordered a meal at Joanie's and got it in less than 10 minutes. But usually it takes longer because Joanie comes over for a talk or the cook leans out and asks "Where you from?'' or somebody yells "Bear!'' and everybody, including the help, runs to the door to look.

Also - you should know this before embarking on an expedition - restaurant hours are written on paper and not on stone.

On paper, Joanie's is open Tuesday through Sunday, lunch only. That said, I've eaten supper there. I have also arrived on a Friday at lunch and found the place closed with no note on the door.

Not long ago, a server called in to say she wasn't coming to work because her route was blocked by a forest fire. In the Big Cypress, fire and flood can be problems. And there's always that stray gator on the Tamiami Trail or in the parking lot.

Call (239) 695-2682 just to make sure. Also, pack a picnic. If Joanie's is closed, walk around to the back and enjoy it. Watch out for the bears.

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Joanie is a pixie of 68 with short, brownish-blond hair and dimples in her cheeks. Most of the time she wears shoes. "Help yourself to what you want to drink,'' are her first words when she hears the screen door creak.

If you demand your air ice-cold, try one of those fern bars closer to the coast. Joanie likes natural ferns and natural air.

She was born in Miami back when everybody called it "Miam-maw.'' Like a lot of Miam-awns, she tired of the hustle-bustle. She and her husband, who had been fishing in the Everglades since forever, decided to move out to the middle of nowhere for good.

They bought the oldest known building in the Big Cypress, an edifice constructed in 1928, the year the road was completed across the swamp. Carl made it into a gas station in 1987; Joanie sold the sandwiches. After Carl died, Joanie closed the gas station, though patrons like to joke that you can still get gas at Joanie's.

Her loyal regulars include cane-pole fishermen stinking of bream, Miccosukees who like her fry bread and legions of foreign tourists who have worked up an appetite by counting gators along the road. "I parlez-vous with people pretty easy,'' Joanie says.

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Crumbs don't fall through the floorboards anymore. Joanie filled the cracks with paper and goop. Nor are customers likely to notice cracks on the wall or ceiling, because every inch is covered by seashells, stuffed bass, turkey feathers, wild hog skulls, deer antlers.

Joanie has graced the restroom walls with photographs taken by her friend, the irrepressible swamp man Lucky Cole, known for his circa-1950 pictures of nude women who may or may not be posed with alligators. Joanie occasionally has to explain the worth of Lucky's photos to feminists who lack her artistic sensibilities.

Reptiles, whether cavorting with naked women or discovered au naturel, play a role in Big Cypress and Joanie culture.

On my last visit, being the nosy reporter, I stole a peek inside her freezer. A headless cottonmouth lay coiled in a plastic bag set on top of the frozen bananas she uses in her shakes.

Joanie swears she never serves snake to customers. Even so, I won't be ordering her famous "Swampy Dog'' frankfurter until further notice.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Big Cypress cuisine

Joanie's Blue Crab Cafe is on U.S. 41 near the Ochopee post office. It is generally open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday. Call (239) 695-2682.

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