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Buster’s Boiled Peanuts

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Amid all the preparation for my fast-approaching leap into Mexico, it is Florida that fills my thoughts. Call it a bout with nostalgia, but Florida is my roots, and Mexico represents a gateway into the unknown.

Everything south of my homeland will be the kind of experience to write home about. The food, the people, the laws–the very culture–will all be new and unfamiliar. I’m not new to the new and unfamiliar, though I’m also not immune to the comfort of familiarity.

And so with this very real and exciting and daunting leap ahead of me, I’m reminiscent of the past that has lead me to this point. How have I become a person who rides into the unknown and likes it? Remarkably, I rate boiled peanuts pretty high on the list of causes.

I first encountered boiled peanuts on Terra Ceia Island. This is the small community at the south end of Tampa Bay that I called home for seven very formable years. In 1994, I was ten and had just moved from a beach town near Clearwater. I was finishing primary school and not worried in the least about making new friends. I was also incredibly fascinated with the “country” feeling of my new home. Compared to St. Petersburg, Terra Ceia was in the sticks.

Two-lane roads spanned the width of the island and also wound around its perimeter. I could ride a bicycle for six miles and never see a drop of road paint. What I did see was a mixture of new and old and a lot of very friendly people.

On Terra Ceia, homes were spread out. I was used to looking through a window and seeing my neighbor looking through his. Here, new homes were popping up amongst the meager fishing and farming properties, but hundreds of feet still separated them. And those hundreds of feet were likely occupied by native palms and other unkept overgrowth. Sometimes the space was filled with nothing more than a neglected orange grove or empty horse pasture.

It was a time of transition for Terra Ceia. Crab pots stood stinking in yards and gill nets dried in the sun next door to an immaculate display of money. The new, zillion-dollar homes for the rich folk were slowly tearing down the old island and becoming the future of Florida’s ritzy Gulf Coast.

But while the homes were changing, the people still seemed rooted in the past. They shared a strong sense of community and history that I hadn’t felt “up north.” My family joined the Village Improvement Association. Its mission to improve the community without forgetting the road that had lead us to the present was more than 100 years in the making. To this end, the island’s people hosted an annual fishing festival. Other holiday events brought us together to share in the past and celebrate the future of the community. Outsiders were welcome as long as they brought an inside perspective. Coming to Terra Ceia with big development plans got you swift kick to the rear.

The sense of community was rich and preserved. City folk like myself were mingling with old time Floridians who had called Terra Ceia home for many decades. They were a different type to me. They dressed like farmers and talked slow. They smoked or chewed tobacco. They drove old trucks and grew their own food. And they were friendly and didn’t seem to mind a ten-year-old stretching his wings.

For my friends and me, Terra Ceia was a Narnia of adventure. We roamed the island by bicycle. We would ditch the bikes and take to foot if a trail through the woods looked promising. Sometimes the trails lead to an overgrown home of decades past, wrecked beyond repair but still littered with memories. Other times, the adventure brought us closer to the kind of wildlife we only knew from books. We saw osprey and pelicans. Once we encountered a den of wild raccoons! We even swam with manatees!

I later took to roaming the waters by boat. Most often, my companion was my dog, and together we scouted the countless islands and mangrove passages of lower Tampa Bay. Whether we were ripping across six inches of water and hoping for the best or idling through a passage that left the skiff riddled with leaves and scurrying crabs, each day was an adventure into the unknown.

One day, that adventure was boiled peanuts. There was a fruit stand along the highway that bisected Terra Ceia. An old-timer named Buster manned that stand nearly every day. He was as Florida cracker as you can imagine. His wiry white hair made a mess of a beard in the front. In the back, it tried desperately to hide a very red neck. His jeans were worn, and his feet–rarely covered with shoes–looked more aged than the rest of him. He had a cackle that was as harsh sounding as he looked. Still, I remember Buster being a friendly and happy man. He too welcomed me to Terra Ceia.

He sold fresh vegetables and fruit mostly, but he also sold this thing I had never heard of called boiled peanuts. As crazy as it sounds, I recall the smell of boiled peanuts just as vividly as the smell of low tide. Their salty flavor is as strong in my memory as the ocean itself. The hot spices are as unforgettable as any time I nearly maimed myself while out exploring.

Buster was a part of the island experience for years. Eventually he moved his stand into town. New homes continued to replace overgrown properties at a steady pace. New families moved in, and new faces joined the bus ride to school. I made strong friendships that have lasted to this day.

All the wonderful excitements of my time on Terra Ceia–the people, the raw environment, the freedom to live dangerously–made me an adventuresome person. But it’s the peanuts I’m recalling most these days. And so in a tribute to this time of my life that I cherish so much, I’m doing my best to recreate Buster’s boiled peanuts.

The recipe is simple.

One pound of raw nuts. A gallon of the ocean. And a little more spice than you think you can handle.

Brian

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