When you grow up in West Palm Beach, Fla., long road trips come with the hot, humid territory. It's six hours just to clear Jacksonville. Any destination usually takes at least 10 hours of driving.
On a recent Saturday, I had the chore of making the 11-hour drive home to Charlotte by myself. I didn't mind, though, because I had picked out my reward: With no one else along to fret about lost time, I could include a lunch stop at the Dixie Crossroads in Titusville for a platter of rock shrimp.
This is going to be a food story that frustrates you. Rock shrimp aren't something you find just anywhere. But with spring breaks coming up and half the country headed to Orlando, I thought it might be OK to tell this story.
When my family moved to Florida in 1969, we weren't rolling in dough. The economy was even rougher by 1972 than it was by 2008 and my mother always had her eye open for a deal. On Sundays, our drive home from church went by a Zayre's parking lot where there was usually an old truck with a sign that said "Rock Shrimp." Shrimp wasn't something we could afford much, but my mother quickly discovered that rock shrimp were a bargain. They were trash fish in those days, a meaty morsel hidden under a very hard shell. Most people didn't want to fool with them.
That didn't stop my mom: With three able-bodied kids she could order to stand at a sink and cut through the shells, and my dad always ready to fire up the charcoal grill, rock shrimp were a treat she couldn't pass up. Once you get inside that hard shell, the meat is firm and sweet. Grill them quickly and brush them with butter and you'd swear it was lobster. Or as close as people in our income bracket were going to get.
For years, we kept rock shrimp as our family secret. Then suddenly, the rock shrimp truck disappeared. A family restaurant up in Titusville had come up with a machine to slit those hard shells. All the rock shrimp ended up there, at the Dixie Crossroads, where they used to offer all-you-could eat rock shrimp.
Over the years, I've managed to stop a few times. When my son was small, he couldn't handle 11 hours in a car without a break, so we'd work in a lunch break. It's a classic Old Florida place, with a boardwalk over a fish pond where kids can toss food pellets to the fish and try to hit the alligator fountain while their parents wait for a table. Inside, there are at least three dining rooms, all decorated in manatee murals and wildlife paintings.
When I stopped for an early lunch last Saturday, I was happy to see most things about the place haven't changed. The alligator fountain is still spitting water, the waitresses still call you hon. They've added a bunch more things to the menu, like mullet and something called Royal Red Shrimp.
These days, you don't get all-you-can-eat anymore. A dozen and a half rock shrimp will set you back $21. But the platters come with two sides, and the basket of fritters, Florida's version of a beignet, still comes to your table warm and piled with an avalanche of powdered sugar.
And the rock shrimp? Still sweet, firm and buttery. Like lobster for poor people.
As my dad always said when I was a kid, "I wonder what the poor people are eating tonight?" Rock shrimp, Dad. Rock shrimp.
The Dixie Crossroads, 1475 Garden St., Titusville, Fla. From I-95, take Exit 220 and go east about 2 miles. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m/. Sunday-Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.