by Tim Gilmore, 1/21/2018
The smoke that pours from the chimney blasts the old industrial neighborhood with the salivating allure of pork and shrimp.
Tonight, revelers at the long dining table that parallels the buffet have brought their own beer, boxed wine, and Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. Art wears his trademark homemade blue chef’s hat that swims with profiles of fish.
Art Jennette’s been cooking “cracker” food with love for more than half a century. It pleases him to feed people, and this love permeates his smile, his shuffling through the crowd, his holding out the old cast iron skillet brimming with shrimp blackened in his own special sauce. Everything’s his recipe, unless it’s his mother’s.
You have to call ahead for reservations, but Southern Charm’s not out of place. It’s right at home, tucked in among auto shops and thrift stores and corrugated metal warehouses. For the last 12 years, he’s been cooking on St. Augustine Road near Emerson Street on old land, ground that housed the community of Philips more than a century ago. Philips grew out of the slave community on Red Bank Plantation, whose main house, built in 1854, still stands on Greenridge Road. Art serves up fried okra and whiting just five blocks from Philips Congregational Church, built in 1887.
Eating at Southern Charm on a Saturday night is like coming over to Art’s house for him to cook you dinner. The diners at the long table have grown crazed with the smells wafting through the air. “I’m ready,” a burly man with his elbows far out to his sides says. “I’d eat whatever smells like that even if it had a face on it!”
When Art rings his corroded old dinner bell and bangs the cleaver against it, chairs scrape across the floor, and men and women jostle each other for the buffet line.
Every day, Art serves fresh collard greens. His shrimp, which he calls one of North Florida’s most important natural resources, come from local waters. He still serves Little Marsh Island Casserole, a potato dish, “a hundred year old recipe” he learned from his mother. People have been eating fresh collards on St. Augustine Road here for more than 150 years.
Art spent his earliest childhood at his grandfather’s house at 1832 Walnut Street in Springfield, and when he moved with his parents to Cedar Hills on the Westside, he and his siblings took the bus across town to visit his grandfather and aunt every weekend. That’s when the food preparation began.
“Aunt Peenie,” Art’s pronunciation of Penny, “had this huge fig tree out back. We would pick the figs and she taught me how to make fig preserves.” The more he remembers, the more excited he becomes, the higher his voice climbs.
“We were allowed to take the bus across town in those days, and we’d catch a transfer right in the middle of downtown, and we’d always stop by Hawthorn’s Fruit Juice and get coconut juice, it was on Forsyth Street, it’s not there anymore, they tore it down to build a parking lot or something grand like that, and we would walk through Hemming Park right there in the middle of the city, I mean it was a big deal!”
That’s when his mother, his aunts, and various women cousins taught him to cook. His mother taught him fried green tomatoes. Someone else taught him eggs and grits.
Aunt Florabelle, whom Art describes as “an Irish redheaded short beautiful lady,” took him to pick blackberries. “She’d say, ‘Look out for snakes,’ and we’re walking along the cow pastures and the woodsides, we would pick gallons of blackberries, and we’d make blackberry cobbler, the old way, we actually did drop dumplings in them, and we went to the corn fields and picked the corn, so she taught me to pick the corn, clean the corn, cut the corn, scrape the corn, freeze the corn, and eat the corn, start to finish.”
He takes a breath and says, “So. Cooking Southern is just natural to me.”
Diners move down the buffet line, spooning up collard greens, fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, garlic shrimp, cornmeal fried whiting, cheese grits, smoked ribs in sweet sauce, and Little Marsh Island Casserole.
In 1978, Art’s mother and stepfather “put up their house to buy the fish camp,” meaning The Palms on Heckscher Drive at Clapboard Creek.
At first, The Palms was like a dozen other fish camps on the marsh islands Heckscher strings together. It was housed in a small concrete building. There were tanks with live shrimp. There was dead shrimp. A little kitchen served shrimp baskets and hamburgers. Southern rock bands played the dancehall out back on weekends.
Then Art started his “country-style seafood buffet,” using exclusively his and his mother’s recipes, and pretty soon The Palms had to start taking reservations. His laughter rises a pitch. “Now whoever heard of taking reservations at a little cracker fish camp?” He stresses the word “authentic.” He rang a dinner bell. He served all the food in old cast iron skillets. Just like he does now.
The place, and the cook, gained a reputation. Referring to Jake Godbold, Jacksonville mayor from 1978 to 1987, he says, “Jake loves my pork chops,” and about John Delaney, mayor from 1995 to 2003, he says, “John! John’s my friend!” The Delaney administration frequently held events at The Palms, and when Art talks about Delaney, he glows.
“Now this is the type of person he is and this is what makes him successful. He keys in on the artistry of what makes a thing happen. If you don’t recognize the artistry of your business, you lose it. John Delaney can look at anything and see what’s real about it, the authenticity.”
Then the hard times came. Art doesn’t like to talk about the way things went. He doesn’t like to say anything negative. His stepfather sold the business, but Art carried on. The Great Recession hit. And somewhere along the way, somebody else ended up with Art’s lease.
So Art started ringing his dinner bell on St. Augustine Road. He makes birthday announcements after banging the cleaver against the bell, he still takes reservations, and he focuses on shrimp. He does it, he says, “the island way,” meaning Northeast Florida’s marsh islands.
And he does it the “cracker” way. He rejects the anthropological theories that the word “cracker” came from Florida cattle wranglers cracking their whips. In her lyrical 1999 book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray refers to a June 27, 1766 letter from a British colonial officer named Gavin Cochran to the Earl of Dartmouth, saying, “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their place of abode.” Art sees “cracker” as deriving from the same Irish slang that includes phrases like “a crackin’ good time” and “crackin’ up” for laughter.
“Cracker” isn’t just synonymous with “redneck.” Though Art’s menu includes meals like the Trailer Trash Special and the Redneck Surf & Turf, his culture and cooking, his identity is Florida cracker completely. While both “redneck” and “cracker” are often derogatory terms, “cracker” is a style of architecture and a cuisine and lacks redneck’s connotations of racism and meanness.
Art’s falsetto cries of “Hot shrimp!” cut through the din of conversation, the delicious smoke, the steam.
When diners consume most of the first plate, waiters dump a couple dozen fried white shrimp from skillets onto a second plate. Diners go back to the buffet for seconds. Somebody from a table in a corner yells, “I’m still hungry. Bring me more!” and a waiter dumps another couple dozen fried shrimp on his plate. Then Art moves from table to table with a skillet of blackened shrimp. Two and a half hours in, the Sweet Georgia Brown cookies appear.
The meal is raucous, Rabelaisian, communal, animal, and all too human. Art refers to everybody, newcomers and oldtimers, as “friends and family.” His feeding people is sacramental. Coming together to eat is both the most basic, primal, and bodily necessity, and the most social, democratic and cultural event. Earthy and transcendent, it’s as primal as defecation and as sacred as prayer.
And it’s the purpose, joy and love of Art Jennette’s life.