Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Today started out slowly with no plans whatsoever. At breakfast, I told Al about a conversation I had yesterday with a woman originally from New England and that was the all it took.
As soon as we moved to Florida we started hearing about a restaurant that has real New England-style seafood – Lena’s. It is about thirty-five miles from home but is on the other side of the city. After hearing about this restaurant again yesterday from my friend, we decided today was the day to eat lunch there.
The day was perfect – warm, sunny, cloudless and with a slight breeze. I had no plans to write about today but the day turned out to be so great that I decided I had to write it down.
Lena’s is located in the small town of Lynne inside the Ocala National Forest (ONF). The forest encompasses about 383,000 acres (607 square miles) and has more than 600 lakes, rivers, ponds and springs. There is no gate and with all the businesses and homes it can be confusing. I’m not sure how it is that one can own a deeded home inside a National Forest.
The people living in ONF seem to be cut from “a different bolt of cloth”. You never know what you will see. A few years ago a young man killed two strangers just to see how it felt to kill someone. A sheriff’s deputy answered a domestic dispute call and was gunned down as he stepped out of his car.
Gatherings of the Rainbow Family here in ONF generate widespread logistical concern. Quote: "Rainbow Gatherings, as a matter of principle, are free and non-commercial. Using money to buy or sell anything at Rainbow Gatherings is taboo. There are no paid organizers, although there are volunteers ("focalizers") who are crucial to setting up the gathering site. Participants are expected to contribute money, labor, and/or material. All labor is voluntary and never formally compensated.”
There was recently an article in the newspaper about a man who lives in ONF on a raft named Huckleberry Finn with his dog named Becky Thatcher. As we passed a shopping mall we saw this saddled horse tied to a tree, complete with a western roping lasso.
We finally found Lena’s with its distinctive whale sign. Lena’s began as a clam shack on Salisbury Beach, MA, in 1958. After a fire in 1972 it moved uptown. Today, one brother runs the Salisbury Beach Lena’s, while three sisters run this one in Lynne, FL. I don’t know how they ended up here.
Fried clams are said to be an iconic food, "to New England what barbecue is to the South".
A few weeks ago I ordered clam strips at a well-known restaurant here in Ocala but they were cooked dark brown and totally inedible. Al has mentioned several times that Florida does not know how to cook New England-style seafood. It amazes me how many people are totally in the dark about fried clams vs. clam strips. Fried whole-belly clams are fried soft-shell clams while clam strips are made from the “foot” of hard-shelled sea clams which can grow to nine inchs in diameter. They are totally different.
Fried clams have been served since at least 1865 - most likely earlier - as they have been found on an 1865 menu from the Parker House hotel restaurant in Boston, MA. It is not known if those clams were deep fried, or if they were batter dipped. The same 1865 menu offers "oysters fried" and "oysters fried in batter".
Legend has it that the modern deep-fried, batter-dipped version was created by Lawrence Henry "Chubby" Woodman from Essex, MA. He is said to have created the first batch on July 3, 1916. One of his specialties was homemade potato chips, so he had large vats for deep-frying foods. He used the clams which he had gathered himself from the mud flats of the nearby Essex River.
For more information than you ever wanted about clams and clam strips, please go to this official site for UCLA (United Clam Lovers of America), and look around the site: http://www.weloveclams.com/trivia.html
For clam strips: http://www.weloveclams.com/strips.html
Al ordered a plate of whole-belly fried clams and I ordered a half plate of clam strips. While waiting for our food we struck up a conversation with another couple who eat here once a week. They are originally from Fitchburg, MA, but can’t get enough of Lena’s seafood. I can’t tell you how many times we have heard this.
First, Al had a cup of clam chowder, made daily from scratch. The look on his face told how good it was. The food arrived on plates heaping with golden fried clams, fries, onion rings and coleslaw. The clam batter is the same that Lena’s has used since 1958 and the onion ring recipe – according to the waitress – “will die with the owners”. My clam strips were cut wide and meaty. Nothing tasted greasy.
We left feeling full and with the knowledge that this was a wonderful, deliciously “bad” lunch. We don’t often eat so much fried food, but this was a wonderful lunch. The restaurant looks like a clam shack, uses paper plates and cups, plastic forks and paper towels for napkins. An electrified wire fence surrounds the outside trash bins to protect them from bears. The Buoys and Gulls rooms are spotless. Note for the future: there is room to park the Roo.
On the drive home we passed Fat Daddy’s Bait and Tackle and Wiggler’s Bait and Tackle. There were several antiques/thrift/junk shops. Muddy Paws Pet Spa and Bow Wow’s Grooming are located near each other. Casey’s Cracker Cottage offers items that would fit not only here in the forest, but in Alaska or Maine: bear and moose trinkets, lamps, hunting and fishing signs, recipe books for game and items that would look good in any hunting lodge anywhere.
To off-set our “bad” lunch, we stopped at a roadside stand and bought tomatoes, zucchini and Sweet Florida Onions. These onions are large – over 5” in diameter – and not round but sort of flattened. They are mild due to low sulfur and high water content. That means they are easy to work with and don’t make you cry.
The onion is a member of the lily family, a close relation of garlic. It is often called the “king of vegetables” because of its pungent taste. Onion is a powerful anti-septic that is rich in vitamins A, B and C. It is a potent source of folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, chromium, iron and dietary fiber. I bet that is more than you ever knew – or wanted to know - about onions.
But there is more…from the internet: “Health benefits are numerous and include iron content beneficial for the treatment of anemia. Eating half an onion daily can provide enough anti-coagulant to significantly lower cholesterol and help prevent heart attacks. They help to lower blood pressure naturally, can relieve chronic constipation, help counter fluid retention and have anti-inflammatory agents that can help reduce symptoms of conditions like arthritis and gout. Chromium in onion helps diabetics to bring down insulin levels and improve glucose tolerance. To prevent colds and mucus formation, mix equal amounts of honey and onion juice and take 3-4 teaspoons of this mixture daily.”
Enough about onions! I won’t bore you with the history of zucchini that dates back at least 7,000 years. We like to halve them lengthwise and cook them on a grill.
This day was the kind we like: different and quirky but low-key. And we will definitely return to Lena’s.
P.S. This is being posted ten days later because we were away for a few days with no WiFi (and nothing worth writing about), and then we had some landscape work done and the contractor cut our cable line. Since we "bundle", that left us with no telephone, television or computer connection. Back to the Dark Ages!