A old friend once remarked that "the best thing about Miami is that it's so close to the United States," and this sentiment applies to South Florida generally. Still, it's at least six hours by car to the nearest state line, so our weekend explorations are generally confined to the Sunshine State. This year, we spent Thanksgiving in Naples, a little tourist town to the west of here, and so had a holiday dinner of what might be called...
Florida stone crabs (Menippe mercenaria), like energy from the ocean, represent a renewable resource. One of their defense mechanisms, when they are attacked by a predator such as an octopus, is to shed an arm, after which they conveniently grow a new one. Unlike other shellfish such as lobster and shrimp, the stone crab's edible flesh is almost all within their arms and claws, so helping them to shed an arm is a simple and relatively natural harvesting process.
They're called stone crabs because of their shells, which resemble porcelain. Restaurants serve them cold, usually with a mustard sauce, either as appetizers or as a plateful for dinner, and they use a special gadget to crack the shells to make picking out the crab meat easier. At home, a mallet works fine, although it's easy to get pieces of shell all over the kitchen.
And best of all, they're actually low in fat and cholesterol.
Because their range is limited to Atlantic waters south of about Jacksonville (including the Gulf of Mexico) and the season during which they can be harvested is limited to the winter and spring, Florida stone crabs are not widely distributed. Although they can be purchased throughout the US at gourmet groceries, they are often inferior outside the Gulf States due to shipping delays—freshness is imperative with these delicacies. This year, the ridiculous price is actually down a bit for some reason, so it makes this South Florida treat even better.
Now a community of winter homes for people with too much money, Naples, with its protected embayment, began life as a fishing village and still plays host to a significant stone crab fleet, so Florida stones are especially fresh in the restaurants there. It's possible to find good ones even in the down-scale restaurants, something you just don't want to bother trying on the east coast (as we've discovered the hard way).
Simple meals work best: 1 to 1½ pounds or so of crab legs / claws (much of the weight is in the shells), a salad (Caesar is a good complement), perhaps a crisp, not-too-fruity Chardonnay. You can use the lack of a starch with the meal to justify having dessert.
If they had come ashore in, say, Key West instead of Massachusetts, there's little doubt that the Pilgrims would have had stone crabs instead of turkey at the first Thanksgiving—and one can only speculate about what our present-day traditions would be like. At least kids in school could draw crabs much the way they draw turkeys, by tracing their hands, both of them, with the thumbs pointing toward each other to resemble the claws.
As might be expected, our Thanksgiving weekend in Naples had both its unique, local flavor as well as the national obsession with Black Friday bargains to offer, although the latter was spun to match the local culture. While the Wal-mart in the town next door no doubt opened on Friday at 5 AM (or whenever; we did't get up to check), the snooty shops on Fifth Avenue South in Naples proper didn't start their special sales until around noon.
Naples itself, with its long history as a center of local and regional commerce, represents the respectable side of Florida's southwest coast. Other parts of the surrounding area, including the villages of Everglades City and Chokoloskee deep in the coastal 'Glades to the south, have a far more notorious and checkered past. Since as far back as the Civil War, the Ten Thousand Islands and nearby coastal region have served as a wild-and-wooly, unauthorized port of entry for all sorts of contraband. Gun-runners in wartime; bootleggers in Prohibition; drug smugglers in more recent decades—they have all found the labyrinth of islands and mangrove channels, well protected by constantly shifting sandbars and tidal flats, to be a convenient way to get their wares into the country. All the while, the locals have profited from these activities: it's simply remarkable how much income a well-schooled fishing guide has always been able to pull down for a night's work. There are any number of families in the area whose current generations include pillars of the community living off fortunes built on the highly questionable activities of earlier decades.
Where else, in a town of less than 25,000 people, would you find a used car lot that specializes in cars by Porsche and Ferrari, Jaguar and Bentley—just down the street from the new car dealerships for each?