The Southern Cry of Jubilee-Fairhope, Alabama
Posted in Alabama on March 15, 2014 by Victoria Allman
It was four in the morning when the man running down the dock started shouting, “Jubilee! Jubilee!”
It was a sweltering August night along the shoreline of Mobile Bay, so we had our portholes open and could hear him perfectly.
“What’s that?” Patrick rolled over and crushed a pillow to his head, but I had heard rumors of such a rare phenomenon and wanted to check it out.
I threw on my clothes and hurried down the dock after the man toward the beach. Lights danced along the shoreline illuminating the figures that had responded to the man’s call.
One man, dressed in a white tank top and camouflage shorts with the words BAMA stretched across the back of his ballcap, held a bucket in one hand and a flashlight on a long stick in the other. He bent down and scooped the bucket through the shallow water using the light pole as an underwater lamp.
“What’s he doing?” I asked Tom, our neighbor whom I’d met the day before, who stood in the still warm sand watching the show.
“It’s a jubilee. He’s catching shrimp.” Tom nodded toward the water. Standing ten feet from the shrimper, a man, in the ubiquitous crimson and white colors of the region, was bent at the waist picking blue crab from the shallows and tossing them into a steel wash basin that sat behind him on the beach. “There’s a load of crabs to be had, too.”
We wandered closer to the water. The shallows boiled with sea life flopping around and seemingly trying to beach themselves. In a quick scan of the area lit by Tom’s light I counted a dozen flounder.
“Happens each year here on the Eastern Shore.” He passed me his lantern and waded into the warm water. “Just before sunrise, once or twice a summer, the fish are driven to shore by a pocket of unoxygenated water. A dead zone, if you will.”
“Do they die?” I asked, unsure if this was the same thing as a red tide.
Tom shook his head. “Only the ones that are caught.”
He held out a four-foot stick with tines like a pitchfork on the end in front of him. “Shine the light over here, would you?” He pointed to the left where three flat, bottom-hugging flounder slithered on top of each other.
“They become real slow and sloppy ‘cause of the lack of oxygen and are easy to catch.” He thrust the gig into one of the flounder and stabbed him right behind the eyes. “There’s been jubilees where guys claim to have caught a hundred flounder in just an hour.” He strung the flounder on a long length of wire and looped it through his belt, the fish hanging from his side like a set of keys. He speared and strung four more fish as he spoke. “Thing is, it only lasts an hour or so. As soon as the wind blows or the tide changes mixing oxygened water into here the fish can breathe again and scatter back to the depths.”
I looked down at the warm water lapping at my bare feet. The wild scramble of flounder, shrimp, crabs, and even an eel or two was the densest concentration of sea life I’d ever seen. They were slow and staggering, almost drunk-like, through the shallows. They put up little fight at being caught.
A bell rang farther down the beach. Slowly, as the call of “Jubilee” went out, the beach filled with people. Some arrived with casting nets, some with flounder gigs like Tom’s, some with buckets. “I seen one woman out here with a laundry basket one year,” Tom told me. His loop was now stretched tight, and the feathery tails of the flounder trailed thought the water.
He unbuckled the wire from his belt and handed it to me. “Here, this is for you.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, reminded of how much I loved the Southern spirit of generosity and hospitality.
“Sure thing, sweetie.” Tom winked at me in the predawn light. “I’ll get more than me and missus can eat before the tide changes.”
And sure enough, he did. Within the next twenty minute, Tom’s second line was full.
A slight breeze blew wisps of my hair across my face.
Tom looked up from the water below and studied the sky. “That’ll be the end of it.”
I looked down at the water at his feet. What once was alive with squirming, squiggling fish was now noticeably stiller and less crowded.
Tom swung the forked end of his stick into the air and held it like Poseidon’s Trident. He patted the again heavy string of flounder on his hip. “Good thing we got here early.”
We turned from the water as the last of the flounder retreated to deeper water and walked back up the dock.
I held up the string he had given me. “I’m glad someone called out. Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” The lines beside his eyes crinkled deeper. “Won’t be another till next year now. Just make sure you listen for the cry of Jubilee.”
Pecan-crusted Flounder with Cheesy Grits and Satsuma Salsa
For the Satsuma salsa:
4 satsuma oranges, filleted and juiced
½ shallot, minced
1 tablespoon thyme
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup olive oil
2-4 drops hot sauce, depending on tolerance
For the flounder:
6 fillets flounder, 6-ounces each
Salt and pepper
1 cup buttermilk
3 cups pecans, ground to fine
3 tablespoons olive oil
For the cheesy grits:
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, diced
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups grits
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 cups white cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper
This dish is great with steamed green beans, asparagus, sautéed spinach or kale.