The new seafood vendor at our farmer’s market had red snapper fillets for sale, and it triggered a food memory, my first taste of this fish: a revelation. As a former poster child for Picky Eater’s Anonymous who wouldn’t eat fishsticks let alone something fresh from the sea, I credit red snapper caught in Saint Andrews Bay, Florida and grilled outside, at the nearby piney campgrounds as the first unraveling of years of food fear and loathing.
I was sixteen years old, thrilled to be a guest of my best friend Pat McNellis and her family on a spring break camping trip to a secluded beachtown on the Florida panhandle. It was rare for the McNellis’ to plan such a vacation and Pat’s parents, Martha and Maurice, extended an invite to her friends. Jean and I accepted.
Likely the availability of a neighbor’s pop-up camper sparked the trip. It slept four and was an easy hitch onto the McNellis Bel-Air station wagon. We were told to pack light, shorts and tops, and be sure to bring a towel, bathing suit, and pillow.
Maurice intended to fish; he hadn’t used his reel in years but was certain he’d hook a bucketful of good eating from the Gulf Stream waters. Most of the gear packed up with the camper, luggage strapped onto the Bel-Air roof.
Maurice drove, with navigator Martha and youngest McNellis daughter Laura in the front seat. They folded down the back seat, and bedded it with quilts for us four teens. Pat, sister Lynn, Jean and I each placed our pillows on alternating sides, stretched out and settled in for the long drive to the Gulf of Mexico.
Plan was to leave in the early afternoon, but getting the remaining McNellis household, Pa, the dogs, and Aunt Margaret, situated before heading out took longer than expected. Maurice didn’t aim the Bel-Air South until seven pm. “McNellis time,” Pat reminded. “People are bumping.”
No matter. It was my first spring break trip to Florida, my first camping trip too. We were all looking forward to seeing the ocean, and escaping the grind of high school—although we were saddled with English homework—a rare combination of reading absurdist plays and writing the answers, chapter by chapter, to 200 Huckleberry Finn questions.
Of course, we considered ourselves to be cutting-edge cool in 1971.
While Martha pointed out road signs and Maurice considered his casts off a long jetty, we were in our own world, spread out on quilts in the station wagon rear. Discussing the existential nature of life, the bleak vision of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, the stunning long strawberry blonde locks of heartthrob Casey George was our passion, not fishing or camping or the searing tedium of the Huck Finn homework.
Somewhere between Montgomery and Dothan Alabama Pat and I began writing our own play, “Rest Area No Restroom”
What should have taken eight hours to drive took all night. We awoke glazy-eyed on a side road where Maurice had pulled over to give his eyes a rest, about an hour from our destination.
After unpacking, we spent a lazy day on the beach. Martha set up her camp-kitchen and Maurice headed off to the jetty, tackle box in tow.
It was rough go for the man; he’d lose footing, slip on slick stones, the irregular jetty rocks more treacherous than he’d remembered. His legs got banged up pretty bad.
By early evening, Maurice emerged, knees and shins jagged rock-cut and bloody, but ruddy face beaming as he held up a string of beautiful red snapper.
We learned later that it was a bit of a ruse. Poor Maurice never caught a thing. Battered but determined, he bought some off of some other fishermen and strung ’em up on his line.
Martha had a grill ready, along with foil packets of sliced potatoes and onions. She cleaned and prepped with fish simply with salt, black pepper, paprika, and lemon, then wrapped them in foil too. After placing all pieces strategically on the grill, she joined Maurice for a Salty Dog cocktail: vodka, grapefruit juice, and little salt. Surely that would salve his wounds.
Some time later, we were called to supper, set out on a long picnic table beneath tall pines, the night sky twinkly.
I was hesitant, but hungry, and so took a forkful. Wow. The snapper was delicate yet firm, sweet, almost nutlike. There was light smokiness from the grill, delicious, with bits of lemon cooked onto the fish added surprising tang. It felt good to be eating something so fresh, so immediate. The potatoes and onions had charred up brown and smoky in their foil packets, too. It was a great beginning to our camping adventure.
The grueling 200 Huckleberry Finn questions were left for the ride home.
Grilled Red Snapper with Lemon and Chives
1 lb. Red Snapper fillets, boned, with skin on
1 large Lemon, sliced into rings
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 long strands of fresh Chives
Rinse off the fish and pat dry. Lightly rub the whole piece with olive oil. Over the flesh side of the fillet, rub in the minced garlic and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and paprika. Lay out the lemon rings and use the chives as strings to secure, tying them like you would a package around the lemon.
This can be done in advance.
Prepare your grill or smoker. If you are grilling foil packets of potatoes and onions—do those first. The potatoes take time–about 45 minutes.
The snapper fillets can be laid out directly onto the grill and with lid lowered, cooked for 10 minutes. Placed in foil, they will take longer.
These are thin fillets and you don’t want to overcook them.