On our first morning in Crystal River, Florida, we went to breakfast at the Biscuit Barn, a small diner open from six in the morning to two in the afternoon, and, not surprisingly, known for its biscuits (they were delicious!). A line of what seemed to be only a few tourists and mostly locals was waiting outside, and after giving our name inside, we joined those waiting in a (very) sunny spot a few feet from parking spaces. Vehicles came and went but very few cars. The correct way to come, apparently, was in one of those four-door pickup trucks that seem huge to those of us who do not own one. We saw these pickups at this diner and other restaurants, in the resort parking lot, at the supermarket, and on the roads. They were ubiquitous, but their utility was not clear. (In my Citrus County week, I did not see one Prius. However, I did see some hybrid pickups.) Citrus County, unlike some parts of Florida, is not saturated with cattle ranches, and in spite of the area’s name, we saw no orange, grapefruit, or lemon groves where those vehicles would have a utilitarian use. Indeed, I never saw anything being transported in any of the truck beds. Since the median family income in Citrus County is well below the national and statewide figures and the trucks are pricey, they must put a strain on the budgets of many who drive them in Crystal River. I expected to see a lot of Trump and Confederate flag bumper and window stickers on the trucks, but few of the vehicles had them. The trucks were almost all shiny and pristine, and apparently their drivers wanted to keep them that way.
An aside: The relatively low county income may explain the wide variety of dollar stores we saw. This was great because the spouse and I love dollar stores. We seldom pass one up, and we went into one a couple times during our Crystal River stay.
Every visible person in the Biscuit Barn was white. That was not surprising. Citrus County has about a two percent Black and a two percent Hispanic population, with a smattering of Asians. Patrons wore Trump caps, and many of the items in the restaurant indicated that we were in deeply conservative country. I was not surprised to learn that 70% of the Citrus County vote in the last election went to Trump. Florida does not have a mask mandate, and only a minority of the diner’s customers wore one. I could not tell if one of those who did was being ironic. He had on a close-fitting face covering that said, “Trump 2020.” I wondered if whoever made them had registered a profit.
A few days later we went to Grannie’s, a restaurant similar to the Biscuit Barn, for lunch. As we waited to be seated (another line), a customer at the counter who had rotated his seat to face the booths behind him was holding forth: “In my experience [he did not elaborate on that experience and I could not tell whether his listeners in the booth, who seemed to be listening attentively, even knew him], Biden is sick, very sick. They are injecting him with steroids, probably in the thigh, but soon that won’t work any longer. Biden is a socialist, but he is not liked by other socialists on twitter and stuff like that. An Asian will take over after Biden, someone born in Asia. But Biden is beholden to the Russians. The socialists will disregard the Constitution and not leave after four years, just like Pol Pot. Remember him? When socialists take over, they will disappear all sorts of people, including all the gays.” Some of the customers, including a man wearing a “Trump 2024: The Sequel” cap, gave express words of assent, but no one challenged or differed with the counter-sitting crackpot. His rant, given as far as I could tell without a hint of irony, continued as we were seated out of earshot at the other end of the diner.
In some significant ways this “lecture” was different from similar ones I have heard. First of all, he didn’t mention Trump or any other nut-job conservative. While he railed against “socialists,” and while he made comments about “Asians” and “Russians,” his was neither the usual diatribe against “illegals” nor, using racial code words, about Blacks or Jews.
The ranter may have overlooked including Blacks and Jews in his tirade since few from those communities reside in Citrus County (see above). In our driving about, we saw many varieties of Protestant churches — Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, and Methodist. There was even an Episcopal church that described itself as Anglican. Roman Catholic Churches were not abundant, but there were one or two. On the other hand, we never saw a synagogue. While I did see a sign for a Bahai institution, not surprisingly, there was not a hint of a mosque.
The rant quieted as the man ate his lunch, so we settled down to ordering. Although we had lunch at Grannie’s and breakfast at the Biscuit Barn, our meals had strong similarities. We were not eating food prepared in a chain restaurant, such is IHOP, Denny’s, or Applebees. The food may not have been distinctive enough to attract Guy Fieri, but neither place had cookie-cutter food. In both places, the prices were cheap, and copious helpings were served. I got biscuits and gravy at the Biscuit Barn. Something covering the entire plate and three or four inches high came out of the kitchen. People at the next table, who had had one of the largest pancakes I had ever seen, asked if I was going to eat what had been served. I responded that my cardiologist, for whom I was paying his children’s college tuition, was hoping I would. Grannie’s had several lunch specials that tempted me. I asked a server which she preferred between two choices. She drily replied, “I don’t know. I don’t eat chicken livers.” However, I do and got them, and they came with two sides. Enough food was served to feed three people, and I carted out enough chicken livers for a lunch with leftovers the next day. The biscuit and gravy cost $4.99; the chicken livers were $6.99.
I invariably chose fried okra as one of the sides. The spouse proudly proclaims her southern heritage at the merest provocation, and will then lapse easily into a southern drawl. Even though I know her family’s Alabama roots, I have been somewhat dubious of the strength of her ties since she adamantly avoids okra. We were in the Seafood Seller & Cafe our first night out. I ordered blackened Mahi-mahi, although I remember when that fish in Florida was labeled dolphin or dolphinfish. Apparently, someone in the fishing industry decided that selling this species would be easier if the Hawaiian moniker was used and servers did not have to explain, “No, not that kind of dolphin.” (Which are you more likely to order: Chilean sea bass or Patagonian toothfish?) Our dinner came with the standard two sides. I chose fried okra as one of mine. The fish was perfectly cooked with a delicious rub. The okra was as lightly breaded as any version I had ever had and perfectly fried. With some insistence on my part, the spouse tried the southern vegetable and pronounced it not just good but delicious. At other restaurant meals we also got fried okra, and while that first night’s may have been the best, the spouse liked all but one, which she criticized for “tasting too much like okra.”
Inexpensive, large quantities, and fried food is a recipe for being overweight. At the resort where we were staying, we found that many guests, both men and women, were grossly overweight. Too many smoked or vaped, and many were blanketed in tattoos. I presumed that few held down a job that required a college degree. I do not know where these tattooed tubbies came from, but I assumed it was reasonably nearby because they blended well into the Crystal River milieu.
So, without consciously thinking about it, I found myself judging these people by their appearance, assuming that they were somewhat ignorant folks who didn’t take care of themselves or their families. One day, however, I realized that I needed to reassess those assumptions. Most of the adults at the resort were part of a wholesome nuclear family. A mother and father were routinely accompanied by two, three, or four children. One white couple had what appeared to be four children – two of them black. I had been looking down on these people, but then I realized that I had heard no unpleasantness between any couple. The kids were uniformly well-behaved as they laughed and splashed in the pool or played volleyball and shuffleboard. Parents patiently tried to teach kids how to use an unfamiliar croquet mallet. Parents did not find it necessary to yell at children to keep them in line, and siblings regularly looked out for each other. I heard no child cry. My biases about the way they looked presumed a bad family life, but my observations had proven me wrong. And I felt a bit wiser, for I am always a bit wiser whenever I recognize and adjust my prejudices.
(continued April 9)