Summer Days On The River

For the water-loving Cookseys, Dog River is the place of past memories, future plans and seafood boils in between.

Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Everyone comes hungry. The women in sundresses, men in khaki shorts and polos, even the dogs on the dock. As they gather, cocktails in hand, a stockpot steams behind them, and the smell of crab boil seasonings, seafood and sausage permeates the air. Boats cruise by, leaving a rippling river behind them. A Dog River shrimp boil is underway.

It’s a familiar setting for Amy and Ben Cooksey. The couple received their Dog River property as a wedding present about three years ago, and it has seen many seafood boils since. “It was her dowry,” Ben laughs. All jokes aside, the riverside plot was a true gift amid unexpected circumstances.

Amy and Ben invited over 300 guests to their March 21, 2020, ceremony at the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, with a reception at Amy’s childhood home on Dog River to follow. Ten days before their wedding, COVID was declared a pandemic. A few days after that, a state of emergency was announced in Alabama. “They shut everything down,” says Amy. “People could still have weddings the week before, but the week of our wedding, it became, ‘You can only have 10 people.’” Instead of postponing their wedding, the couple adjusted. They canceled their rehearsal dinner, moved their ceremony up a day and all but eliminated the guest list. “Since I work in healthcare, I knew this virus wasn’t going to go away in two weeks like everyone was saying,” said Amy, a physician assistant at Cardiology Associates of Mobile. “Who knew what was going to happen? We just wanted to be married.” And so, they were, in a ceremony at the diminutive chapel at St. Ignatius’ Catholic Church with only their parents, maid of honor and best man in attendance. 

Left Amy Cooksey carries a pitcher of her Missionary’s Downfall cocktails to the dock for thirsty guests. Right Bright green cypress trees and marsh grasses make the Dog River setting feel magical.

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In lieu of the big celebration, Amy’s parents gifted her and Ben the property, which sits next door to Amy’s childhood home. “My parents bought that lot about 20 years ago,” says Amy. “I’ve always wanted to live on Dog River too because it was such a great childhood.” Amy and her family always boated, skied and tubed the river. She and her high-school friends would hop on a boat and ride out to the middle of the river to hang out. During college, when Amy returned to Mobile in the summers, the river was there to welcome her home. “When I was home working, I would ski every morning before I went to work,” she says.

Ben’s love of water also developed in childhood. He grew up in Fort Walton Beach, eventually coming down to the Alabama Gulf Coast. “I’ve always been coastal,” he says. Now, as a tugboat captain with Seabulk Towing in the Port of Mobile, he spends much of his time on the water, if not for work, then by choice. When Amy and Ben first started dating, he was working six weeks on a boat in Alaska, with the following six weeks off. Even for Amy, the thought of spending that much time on a ship was daunting. “I couldn’t believe Ben was on a boat for 42 days straight, but [his brother] reminded me not to feel too sorry for him. Right when he would get off that work boat, he would come back home and get on another boat for fun,’” she says. It wasn’t long before he came back to Mobile for good, working on an alternating one-week on, one-week off schedule that was easier on the couple. Getting on his boat on Dog River or off the Causeway during his off time is still a treat. “When I get off my job, that doesn’t hold me back at all from my love of being on the water,” he says. “I can completely compartmentalize work and go out on my own boat without thinking twice.” He also trains with the bar pilots, so he is spending more time than ever out on the water.

Left Ben Cooksey adds the main ingredient to his boil just in time for hungry family and friends. Right Katie Wilkinson and AP Rogers beside the waters of Dog River.

Knowing this, the Cookseys are a perfect fit for their riverside property. They wasted no time drawing up house plans with help from Mobile architect Lucy Barr. But COVID-era material delays at the time halted the construction timeline. Then, the Cookseys found out they were pregnant with their first child. Once again, they adjusted, moving from Batre Lane in Spring Hill to North Reed Avenue in Midtown, where they currently reside. “We love Reed,” says Ben. “I actually lived on the same street with my brother, so we knew it was great.” “We have a great neighborhood,” adds Amy. “We have supper clubs and street parties with everyone. But our ultimate goal is to build a house on Dog River and live there.”

In the meantime, they make the most of the open lot on the river, hosting friends and family as often as possible. The long, wooded drive leading to the grassy vista gives the land extra privacy, with the main draw for now being the spacious dock extending over the water. All in all, not a bad venue. “It’s a work in progress, but it’s really pretty,” says Ben. “Having the dock here first means we can enjoy it right away. We’ve had a few seafood boils out here, and it’s a great place to hang out.” That includes the couple’s first-anniversary crawfish boil, a considerably bigger affair than their small wedding. “We invited about 100 people to the first-anniversary party and it turned out to be really fun,” said Amy. Now, seafood boils are a regular occurrence. The Cookseys source their fresh seafood from Fairhope Fish House; helmed by Jake Posey, a bar pilot, it’s the obvious choice. The boils are casual, with the Cookseys inviting “whoever is around” to join the feast. “I got into boiling seafood back in college,” says Ben, an Auburn grad like his bride. “I would bring a bunch of sacks of crawfish up to school and boil them for everybody. We love doing it on the water now because the cleanup is easier. It is so much more fun out here.”

When Ben is at work for the week, Amy often visits her parents’ house with their daughter Cate. Many of Amy’s family live in the area. Her grandfather stays in a small house on the land, her aunt is down the road in one direction and her cousin is just down the road in the other. “Having family here is especially nice now that we have a one-year-old. I just love being at Dog River,” she says. “Being in town is great, but I enjoy getting away.”

While the Cookseys’ story together has required adaptations and unexpected adjustments, they’ve taken it all in stride with a “can’t complain” attitude. Admittedly, with land right on the river playing perfect host to friends and family, life is pretty good. But those 2021 house plans are still within arm’s reach, and building their Dog River home is very much in the Cooksey’s future. “I’ve always wanted to build out here,” says Amy. “There aren’t many empty lots left on the water that you can build upon. Hopefully, we’ll build our house in three or four years.” “That is the goal,” Ben agrees. “It’s going to happen.”

Ben’s Shrimp Boil

Serves 10-12 

Zatarain’s crab boil seasoning, to taste
4 ounces Zatarain’s liquid crab boil
3 pounds red potatoes 
2 8-ounce packages fresh white mushrooms 
6-8 whole garlic bulbs 
4-5 lemons, halved 
8 whole ears fresh corn, halved
1-2 pounds Conecuh sausage, cut into 2-inch sections
10 pounds 21/25 shrimp 
8-pound bag of ice 

1. Fill an 8-gallon pot with 6 gallons of water. Using a jet burner for quick boiling, bring the water to a boil.
2. Add seasoning, liquid crab boil, potatoes, mushrooms, garlic, lemons, corn and sausage to a strainer basket and submerge in the boiling water. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 25-30 minutes.
3. Add shrimp and return to a simmer. Cook until shrimp turn bright pink and float to the top. 
4. Turn off heat and add an 8-pound bag of ice to stop the shrimp from overcooking. Let the shrimp soak for 10-15 minutes, depending on amount of spice you prefer them to soak up. 
5. Drain and serve. 

Ben shows us hows it’s done

A traditional boil usually features head-on shrimp, sausage, potatoes, corn, lemons and seasonings. Cooksey also added whole heads of garlic and button mushrooms to this feast, but each ingredient needs a different amount of cooking time, and so must be added to the pot in stages. 

Head-on shrimp are sharp and will easily pierce plastic bags, causing shrimp juice to leak all over the place. Cooksey keeps his crustaceans in disposable metal pans in the cooler instead.

Never put ice directly on raw shrimp. When ice gets mixed amongst the shrimp, it is virtually impossible to fish out, and you don’t want to add a bunch of ice to the boiling water with the seafood. It will instantly drop the temp. Cooksey instead fills a gallon-sized plastic bag with ice and lays it on top of the pan of shrimp in the cooler. 

Once the boil is finished, Cooksey turns off the heat and immediately adds ice. This stops the cooking process, letting the ingredients continue to absorb flavor without overcooking.

For a mild to medium spice, Ben uses Cajun Land Complete Boil seasoning or Zatarain’s Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil. For a hot and spicy boil, he switches to Swamp Fire Seafood Boil with an extra dash of cayenne pepper.

Janet Courtney, Amy’s mom and future next-door neighbor, has a cocktail for the adults and a sippy cup for the kids. 

A Delicious Downfall

The Missionary’s Downfall, like many famous tiki drinks, was created by “Don the Beachcomber” at his Hollywood bar, Trader Vic’s, in the 1930s. A New Orleans native (his love of alcohol now making sense), Don capitalized on post-prohibition excitement and added in his love of overseas travel to start a genre. Today, Missionary’s Downfalls are common at local gatherings, where we enjoy a good drink and good times on the water, too!

Amy’s Missionary’s Downfall Cocktail

This Dog-River rendition simplifies the original and makes it by the batch for your next fun gathering! Serves 10.

1 12-ounce can frozen limeade
12 ounces vodka
4 fresh mint leaves
1 packet Truvia

1. Add all ingredients to a blender. Fill to the top with ice and blend until combined.
2. Pour cocktail into a pitcher and serve.

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