Swamp Writer: Kitchen Music

“I don’t know how someone can like the Delta so much, ” my wife says to me one day as I load my Stauter with gear.

“I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t like it, ” I reply. “Everything you can think of to do is up there.”

“But it’s just a swamp. You can’t even get out of the boat and walk very far.”

She has me on that comment. The lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta is one giant swamp to float around in. Even the fixed camps are really just sitting on the mud. The way they stay put is a technique called mud sill: Timbers are bolted to support pilings to create a footprint. Like giant snowshoes.

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“So what do you do?” she questions.

If I were to describe the most likely summer schedule at my swamp camp, it would start with a late afternoon arrival. We unpack our gear and lug the beer coolers onto the porch. Guests will be about two beers into the afternoon, and settling into chairs to work on number three, when I begin to piddle about the place, making sure things are in order. I fill the generator with gas and check the oil. I hunt for wasps to kill, take the cover off the grill, restack some boards.

When I’m done with all of my preparations, I will sit down and work on my third beer, too, as I stare out over the water. Five minutes later I’ll be restless. It’s time to run a catfish line or go swimming. My friends and I will head out in one or two of the boats.

About dark we’ll get back to camp. I’ll start the generator and turn on some country music while dinner gets made. We typically listen to the same thing over and over. For a while, we were stuck with a Wynonna Judd tape. Then we had a mixed CD that began with Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” and progressed with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and finally into Conway Twitty. Every time it kicked on at least one person would mumble a complaint.

Someone will take charge of seasoning the steaks and someone else will start the grill. I’m generally the cook by default, but occasionally another person will jump to the task. Then I’m left to piddle in peace, which is what I enjoy most.

We eat on paper plates and drink out of Solo cups. If we’re lucky, someone will have thought to bring a bag of salad. We shoot dressing straight into the bag, shake it, and pour the soggy leaves onto our plates. Most times we’re not lucky. Typically meat and sometimes bread is the meal.

After dinner, some start to get lazy from the beer. Those that want to make the most of the night mix a whiskey drink and discuss plans to venture out to spotlight alligators and other swamp creatures. The others are eventually persuaded to carry the beer cooler and tag along.

Following a successful adventure, we’ll most likely go swimming in the river, floating with life jackets and boat cushions between our legs, and holding our beers above the water. We talk about a lot of things, but nothing worthwhile.

Back at the camp, those who were slow getting in the boat before now want to go to sleep. Depending on the crowd, it’s either time for a card game or kitchen music.

Not being much of a card player, I get busy gathering the skillet, can opener, propane bottle, ball peen hammer, and other potential music makers. I’m familiar with most people’s preferences as I hand out the instruments. Those who have not made kitchen music before are allowed to choose from the pile of leftovers or dig around the camp for something more to their liking.

Kitchen bands are most successful when accompanied with country music. It’s easier to keep time to the slower beat. Waylon Jennings’ songs, I’ve found, have just the right amount of bass, and most people know the words.


The can opener, my personal preference, ratchets out a smooth tap when played against the knee. My brother likes the hammer skillet, which is more delicate. Anyone who plays the hammer skillet must be considerate of others and not overpower the harmony.

You have to separate the handler of the ball peen hammer and the player of the propane bottle as the two don’t mix. Ball peens go nicely with a block of wood, while the steel propane bottles need the touch of a light kitchen spoon.

There is always someone who will want to blow on the rim of his beer bottle because he thinks it fits the occasion. Some bend low to their instruments, biting their bottom lips, concentrating on the rhythm and trying their best to keep time. Others sit tall, keep a steady beat and look from face to face, seeking approval. Many also lean back and sing out ballads such as “Cruel Hearted Woman.” Their voices carry to the cypress boughs beyond. And there are still more who are motionless and stare blankly, wanting to slip off to bed but not quite sure how to make an exit.


Most weekends there is a bed for everyone, if you include the sofas, but I have seen times when people are forced to sleep on the floor. I’ve also seen people sleep on the floor for no reason.

On a good night, I remember to put more gas into the generator before we turn in. This is important, since I’m the only one who has any sense of when the generator might run out of fuel. On a bad night, it will anyway. And usually at about four in the morning.

I’m tuned to the generator’s health like a mother is to her baby. I can be in a drugged sleep, smothered beneath a pile of blankets, with no thought of waking, and the distant, guttural coughing of that starving machine yanks my eyes open. The fans stop, and the air conditioner falls silent. Everything is hushed. I can hear the frogs again.

No one moves. Everyone feigns sleep. And I dread the dead thing out there in the dark, in the tin-popping heat of the generator shed. I lie still, too, hoping the bunk room will stay cool just long enough to finish my sleep.

The heat slips in over the next 30 minutes. One by one, bodies exhume themselves from sleeping bags. None speak. None volunteer. Mosquitoes, once defeated, begin to settle on our heat patterns. Someone gets up and walks outside to pee. More mosquitoes float in. The person returns, eyes still closed, and falls back on top of his bed.

The sun begins to pour through the windows, turning the heat up another notch. Finally, someone says, “dammit.”  No one even budges to try to help him.

It’s early, but soon everyone begins to rise. They wander about without speaking, licking their lips and patting their cowlicked hair. They search coolers for anything but beer. If they are fortunate, they’ll find a Coke floating in the melted ice water. Most will not. They sit quietly and stare vacantly while I pick up trash and toss the old steak pieces into the water.

Sometimes I cook pancakes. It takes a while to get the skillet temperature just right, and the first batch typically soaks up vegetable oil like a sponge. But the crew eats them without complaint. Bite by slow bite, some consciousness slowly returns.

Soon, the front porch is filled with talk again. Each person reminds someone else of something he, or so-and-so, said or did or didn’t do the night before:

“Connor was hell on the fork coffee pot.”

“Who was it that had the axe handle bucket?”

“That was James.”


“Where did Pete slip off to?”

“He slept on the floor until he got hot.”

“Geez, it was hot everywhere. What’s wrong with the AC?”

“Watt forgot to put gas in the generator again.”

“You could have gotten your ass up and put gas in it.”

“Yeah, right.”

“At least I brought gas.”

“I’ve got gas for you.”

“Awe, come on!  Get away from me!”

The replays and the humor ensure that memories are stamped and filed. And then we load up and depart. One more trip logged.

Delve into another of Watt Key’s worlds in “Fourmile, ” due out in hardback this month. Preorder at pageandpalette.com.

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