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Doc Ford is inspiration for author’s saucy ambitions

By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2010

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SANIBEL, Fla. - Randy Wayne White walks into Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, around the freestanding rack that displays his best-selling books, past the shelves stocked with bottles of hot sauce named for the book’s characters, by the display of Doc Ford T-shirts and caps. At the bar he orders red wine - “Whatever’s open,’’ he tells the waitress - and fixes his gaze on one of the many televisions overhead. (Later he will explain that he never bothered to get his own television hooked up, so here is his only chance to indulge.)

It’s not long before a buzz begins in the dining room. “Is that Randy?’’ patrons ask their servers. “Could I say hello? Do you think he’d autograph a book?’’ The answer is always yes.

There aren’t many patrons who don’t know Doc Ford, the protagonist of White’s books. A former government operative turned marine biologist, Ford and his pal Tomlinson (part hippie, part mystic) chase criminals around the globe from their home base on fictional Dinkin’s Bay in southwest Florida. (Boston readers will see some similarities between Tomlinson and former Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman’’ Lee, a good friend of White’s). White has published 16 Doc Ford mysteries, with more than 1 million copies in print. His 17th, “Deep Shadow,’’ is due out this week.

White and three partners opened Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille five years ago, on the site of a former restaurant where he used to peddle his catch at the end of a day’s work as a light-tackle fishing guide. He likes the symmetry. Last year the partners found a site for a second Doc Ford’s, in Fort Myers Beach. It turned out that the location, accessible by boat and car, was a place where White had once lived during his shrimping days. “Pure karma,’’ he says.

While White describes himself as a silent partner, his influence on the restaurants is evident, from the flavors of South and Central America, which he used to write about as a columnist for Outside magazine, to the menu items named for characters in the Doc Ford mysteries.

Take Tomlinson’s Taquitos, chicken rolled with red peppers and barbecue sauce and served with lime cilantro roasted pepper pesto. “First of all, the alliteration is great,’’ White said, “but, more important, it’s something [Tomlinson] would like.’’

Doc Ford, on the other hand, would favor Yucatan shrimp, a deceptively easy dish created by chef Greg Nelson using fresh lime, cilantro, and chili paste.

The distinctive landscape of estuaries, mangrove swamps, and ancient Indian shell mounds is so central to Doc Ford novels it is almost a character in itself. That’s what drew AJ Jaques and her husband, Rob, to Sanibel in early January. “My husband got me started reading these books,’’ she said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re vacationing down here in Sanibel’’ to see the places White describes. “He’s such a vivid, detailed writer; that’s what we love most about the books.’’

White has been a foodie since he spent childhood summers in Rockingham, N.C., his mother’s hometown. “All the women in my family were superb cooks,’’ he says. Since his mother believed men should be competent cooks in order to be self-reliant, he began cooking at an early age. Despite his success as a restaurateur and purveyor of designer hot sauces, when he goes home to North Carolina, he said, “my aunts still try to fatten me up.’’ In 2006 he published “Gulf Coast Cookbook: With Memories and Photos of Sanibel Island’’ (Pequot Press).

Some of his recent novels include recipes. “Deep Shadow’’ will feature a satay sauce he perfected by experimenting with homemade pepper oil, roast pork drippings, and peanut butter.

White’s enthusiasm is evident in his voice as he waxes about the finer points of chilis and punctuates his sentences with frequent “mmms.’’ His specialty, he said, is pinto beans simmered for a day or two with olive oil, vinegar, chopped onions, and spices. “If you were here now,’’ he said during our phone interview, “you could smell them. And you’d be hungry.’’

Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, 975 Rabbit Road, Sanibel Island, Fla., 239-472-8311, www.docfordssanibel.com

Doc Ford’s Fort Myers Beach Rum Bar & Grille, 708 Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Myers Beach, Fla., 239-765-9660, www.docfordsfortmyersbeach.com.