Monday, June 08, 2009

Nothing If Not...

Mars and I got to the North Carolina beach in time to see the Prickly Pear Cactus blossoming. I was totally surprised and confused. They should not have been there. Neither should we. Cacti are, after all, creatures of the desert, just as we have come to think of ourselves.

Truth be told we are considerably newer to the joys of dry barren land than to the charms of the ocean and its adjacent sandy border. As children growing up in verdant Connecticut we vacationed at the beaches of our home state and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And as an adult couple we have sojourned to "The Cape" frequently, and, more recently to the sand and salt water of North Carolina -- most of these latter trips before we discovered our much deeper affinity to the arid land of the southwestern United States.

Ironically our first visit to the desert came shortly after Mars had been told by a Tarot Card reader in New Orleans that I was most comfortable around sand and water. It turned out that this desert was not sandy. But there were swimming pools and hot mineral springs. And hydration is extremely important when hiking in warm, dry climates. As soon as we got there we knew that it was where we belonged. That Tarot chick clearly knew her divinatory stuff.

Still we returned periodically to the southern shore. Our latest trek to the Tar Heel State had been in 2005, and before that in 2001. This year seemed like a good time to go back.

The destination was, as always, the "South Outer Banks" (the mysterious "SOBX" on oval, black-on-white bumper stickers) -- specifically Emerald Isle, 34 degrees 40' 1" N, 77 degrees 0' 49" W in your gazetteer; a 673 mile drive from our Wethersfield, Ct. abode; and 180 degrees from our culinary and cultural biases.

We stopped midway in the hamlet of Whitehaven Maryland for an overnight at the eponymous Hotel/Bed & Breakfast. On our most recent N.C. treks we had stayed in Whitehaven but at a smaller B & B that was now closed and converted back to private usage. At that time the hotel, which had been built in the mid 1800's, was being refurbished.

The town has a population of twenty-seven, about one half of whom use it as a getaway second home. The hotel sits on the banks of the Wicomico River -- a body of water that can be crossed in three minutes on a free of charge, three-boat ferry that boards from the stop sign at the intersection of Whitehaven Road (next to the hostelry) and River Street. The street numbers on River Street start at 23,836. There are seven houses. A slow walk around the one triangular block in town takes about ten minutes.

Breakfast would be at the hotel but dinner required a six mile round trip out of the residential part of town to "the original all-you-can-eat crab house", The Red Roost. The sound of wooden mallets beating on crunchy crab shells can be quite noisy, so Mars and I opted to get some takeout and sit on the quiet riverview front porch at the B & B. This was the first step in our two week long descent into unhealthy eating and we dove in as deeply as we could given the limitations of the appetizer menu -- Maryland Corn & Crab Chowder, deep-fried Crab Balls, and Seafood (Potato) Skins with Shrimp and Crabmeat. As I am sure Adam and Eve said, "This stuff is really good!"

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we boarded the ferry and headed south. Our plan was to have lunch at O'Connor's in Ahoskie North Carolina -- the eatery in which we were first introduced to that state's "Eastern Barbeque". But we missed their two o'clock closing time by five minutes and settled for hot fudge sundaes in our car, in the pouring rain, in Washington, N.C. about two hours later.

Actually other than a Bojangles or two there wasn't much to choose from, and we had decided anyway that we were going to eat only locally produced unhealthy food. So, after arriving in Emerald Isle and unpacking at our rented condo, we started on our slow food odyssey in earnest by following the ever present aroma of deep fried air to Jordans, one of our favorite E.I. deleterious dining establishments.

The food rules are real simple down here: all fish is fried and all vegetables are canned except for slaw and fries. There are exceptions. One place listed "mac and cheese" among its vegetable choices. Another served fresh okra -- fried of course. Others ostensibly offered "broiled on request" -- but we were too concerned for our safety, being Yankees and all, to be the first to try this option. I did have fish tacos for lunch one day -- made with deep fried Grouper and (surprise) coleslaw. Mars and I find this all strangely interesting since the growing conditions that produce North Carolina's burgeoning tobacco crops could presumably support other more edible produce.
In the desert on the other hand...

Full disclosure: nowadays most of our time "in the desert" is spent in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- 37.3 all-natural, organic, free-range square miles surrounded by the rest of the world. The meat that we eat there probably has a healthier diet than seventy five percent of the American population, including us. Vegetables are considered stale when they see their first sunrise off the vine. Santa Fe does however offer sopaipillas -- deep-fried pastry, typically square, eaten with honey or sugar or as a bread. We have them occasionally.

Sopaipillas are to New Mexico what Hushpuppies (cornmeal dough that has been quickly deep-fried) are to North Carolina. Except that the southern, finger-shaped carb-container is one-twentieth the size, and three hundred times the density of its desert cousin. And is an essential component of every meal. The discarded fry-oil from one week down here would be a bio-diesel industry in Santa Fe. On the third day we were comparing the relative merits of each restaurant's 'pups, fries, and popcorn shrimp. By the fifth we just stopped talking about it and floated unctuously in a cholesterol saturated meditative haze of arterial congestion.

But we thrived, just like the brightly flowering Prickly Pear Cactus that decorated the grounds of our condominium complex: the succulent plants in the face of all the humid air and excessive hydration, us despite the saturated-oil lifestyle.

We desert rats are nothing if not adaptable.

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