Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Lobster Truck

Look, there's one thing you need to know about me and that's that I don't eat things from the side of the road. I don't mean roadkill. That's a given. I don't eat food sold on the side of the road. It freaks me out.

Last year I started to notice that side of the road food suddenly became extremely hip. Jonathan Gold, the LA Times' Pultizer Prize winning food writer was all about some side of the road food. I can't even count how many food bloggers and columnists were raving about lunch trucks and roadside stands. Not me. Hell no was I about to eat some food out of the roach coach. I was staunchly anti any kind of food that wasn't sold in a highly regulated grocery store or spotlessly clean looking restaurant that had at least ten people eating in it at the time I arrived.

I'm profoundly neurotic and have a raging case of OCD which manifests itself in a phobia of food-bourne illness. I can barely eat a cracker in the homes of most of my relatives and I have a long list of things I refuse to even consider eating in restaurants because I just have no way of knowing 100% that the oysters didn't sit out languishing at room temperature for 72 hours until they turned into a veritable froth of deadly bacteria. Basically, if I don't have control over every aspect of a food's preparation I'm convinced it's going to kill me. Somewhere in the throes obsessive thought I decided that food sold on the side of the road had an even higher chance of killing me, so I've always refused to go near it.

Except it was near me every weekend. Friday, Saturday and Sunday the fish guy comes in a pick-up truck and stops in a parking lot right outside of my neighborhood. I've been watching him warily for years. He sells fresh fish, lobster tails and stone crabs from huge, banged up, white coolers out of the bed of the truck. He takes cash.

The whole thing looked seedy to me. How could I know where his products came from and if they were safe? I so reviled the fish guy that I actually wrote a piece about stone crabs and warned people not to buy them from people on the side of the road. When I wrote it I pictured the fish guy in the parking lot near my house.

Hold on a second while I shove my foot in my mouth. I have to take my flip-flops off.

My husband came home last Saturday insisting that I go interview the fish guy because he was certain he sold local products and he was right around the corner. I hemmed and hawed and tried to procrastinate.

"OK," I said, "I'll talk to him but I'm not eating anything from the back of that truck."

We pulled up in the abandoned parking lot where the pick-up truck sat with it's red and white signs advertising grouper filets, lobster tails and stone crabs.

"I bet he's a criminal," I told my husband.

The fish guy is not a criminal. He's friendly and sunburned. His name is Corey and he took over selling seafood out of the back of a truck business from his dad. The family's been doing it for over 20 years and they have a loyal following. That was obvious because while we were there three other cars drove up and the customers looked like they were preparing for a shellfish famine. So now Corey sells the seafood while his dad catches it. They get everything from Everglades City, just across Alligator Alley. Completely local. Totally safe.

Corey opened up one of the coolers and I tentatively looked inside. For a long time I've imagined severed, human body parts lurking in partially melted ice, inside of those coolers. Of course that wasn't there. There were however, a lot of severed crustacean parts like lobster tails and stone crab claws, though the stone crabs were almost gone and were well picked over by the time we got there around five Saturday evening. It looked pretty legit, but I still had some misgivings, which my husband completely ignored as he purchased a twelve dollar, eight ounce lobster tail.

"It's just to try," my husband said, "It's local. It's for your local eating experiment thing you're doing. You have to eat it."

He was right. Part of my experiment, I hope, will be to get me to try new things, to stop being a headcase about food and to be more adventurous and open to new culinary experiences.

One of the most popular and effective methods of treating OCD is through immersion therapy. By confronting your worst fear and realizing how irrational it is, the phobia disappears. I was going to eat the spiny lobster tail.

We washed it off and smelled it. It smelled like the sea - sweet and briny, very fresh. Then we boiled it for a few minutes, sliced it in half lengthwise, brushed it with a lot of butter and broiled it until the top just barely began to brown. Then each of us took a half, dipped it in melted butter and enjoyed every bite of it.

"Thank God this is local," I sighed.

The lobster was wonderful. I didn't get hepatitis from it and I didn't go broke trying to afford it as I would have in a restaurant. The next day we bought four more and they were even better.

This local eating thing...I can definitely do it.


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