Oyster Crazy in the Florida Panhandle
Okay, probably the majority of you out there aren’t going to get to eat oysters two minutes fresh from the water aboard an oysterman’s boat. But you can come close.
They call the Florida Panhandle “The Forgotten Coast.” And yes, it truly is. It’s not the easiest place to reach. Public transportation is difficult. Cell service is from another millennium. But wow, there’s so much more.
The oysters, for one.
No, the central Florida Panhandle did not get oil from the BP disaster.
“Everyone thinks we did,” said Van Johnson, Apalachicola’s mayor. “We had booms out there. We’ve checked. There was and is no oil.”
Apalachicola is the kind of place where an antebellum mansion … really, honestly … built in the 1800s by the same guy who built a house that is now a state park, with 4,000 square feet, four bedrooms, and updated kitchen, is on the market for $275,000. It sits there in Apalachicola in all its Victorian splendor, and a couple of my friends were seriously thinking about buying it.
But back to the oysters.
My friends and I started our foray at a local restaurant called Boss Oyster — their motto is “Shut up and Shuck.” Still not quite sure about where that name, Boss, came from. But if you ask anyone in town for The Place for oysters, this is where you will be told to go.
It’s one of those rustic Florida eateries with a large deck over the water, oilcloth on the tables and friendly waitresses who call you honey with a thick southern accent.
The menu has other things. Meat for those who must. Sandwiches. But the star of the show is oysters, made 20 different ways.
The restaurant has two kinds of oyster Rockefeller (they call it Rockefella), plus something called Captain Jack with bacon, peppers, hot sauce and cheese and The Cubano with black beans, smoked bacon and more. The Gooda Gooda (flame broiled and topped with caramelized onions, spicy Creole soy sauce and smoked cheese) is actually quite tasty.
But to be honest, I think anything other than the least intrusive addition on an oyster is wrong. So my fave was, of course, raw on the half shell nestled in ice. And a close second, the Japanoise, chilled with chives, ponzu, wasabi and flying fish roe. Even with the wasabi, the delicate flavor of the oyster came through.
But I wanted to see how these tidbits came to our plate, and the next morning, I went out at dawn with two oyster guys, Toby Dalton and Leroy Schaiver.
Oyster fishing is done here the old way. Locals would call it the honest way. Two guys go out in a wooden skiff that they probably built themselves. One drives, the other stands on the side with long, wooden tongs that look like giant chopsticks with a metal basket on the end. The guy with the tongs dips the basket into the water, wiggles it in the oyster bed to loosen the oysters, grabs a batch, swings it up and across to a shelf at the bow of the boat. The other guy then sifts through the catch, shoving the undersized ones back. And this is the last place in the US where oysters are still fished with tongs.
Fishermen here do not dredge but, instead, use tongs, long wood handles with a metal basket on the end. They dip the basket into the oyster bed, shift it around to loosen the oysters, then grab the oysters with the basket and deposit them onto a shelf on the boat where they are examined for legal size. This is one of the few places in the US where tongs are still used.
“Man, do you work out or something?,” one of our group asked Toby, who has a set of biceps a gymnast would envy.
“Nope, just this.”
One of my friends on a similar outing tried for herself and couldn’t even lift the tongs with the basket much less grab 10 pounds of shells and swing them across a boat.
Of course, I wanted to taste.
Leroy split the shell, scraped the debris off and handed it to me. It was salty and sweet at the same time. It’s that sweet under note that fades quickly from oysters that are getting old.
But of course.
Guys like Toby and Leroy supply the 15 fish restaurants in Apalachicola. Fifteen in a town of less than 2,000 people, so you can tell how popular fish is here.
But there is more to the oyster story …. the water wars.
It’s an old and well known story here but not so much told outside. The fight is over who is going to get downstream water from rivers in Georgia and Alabama.
“It’s a delicate balance between the sea water on one side of the barrier islands and the fresh water in the river,” Mayor Johnson had told me the previous day. Anything that disrupts this balance will harm the oysters and definitely, getting less fresh water will disrupt the balance. The fight has been going on for two decades and is still in the courts.
Meanwhile, men like Toby and Leroy go out every day with strict rules about how many and how big the oysters can be and where they can get them. Then, people like me smack their lips over the results in restaurants across the Panhandle.
And there are certainly plenty of fish restaurants in the Panhandle’s cities, towns and spots along the beach.
The Florida Panhandle is way bigger than you think, as is the state of Florida. I grew up in Miami Beach, went to college in north central Florida and had never visited the Panhandle. From Miami Beach to the center of the Panhandle is a hard two day drive. From Panama City Beach to Gainesville, where I went to school, is a hard one day drive.
That’s why the Panhandle is the forgotten coast.
More than Apalachicola
There is certainly more to the Panhandle than Apalachicola. There’s Mexico Beach, which is actually a strip of hotels, some truly quirky. The Driftwood Inn (www.driftwoodinn.com), like Topsy, just grew. Peggy Wood started some decades ago with a ratty motel. Today the place looks like an antique shop, with innumerable doodads and frills and just neat … stuff. Plus the absolutely largest Great Dane dog I’ve ever seen. Watch out for his tongue because he will lick you to death.
Off Mexico Beach is Crooked Island, actually a broken peninsula, where you will be left totally alone to hunt for shells to your heart’s content.
And further west is Panama City Beach, a place so tackily kitsch, it’s really neat. There’s an upside down museum … the BUILDING is upside down. There’s mini golf and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum. And sunset cruises and more pirate themes than you really want to see. But somehow it all works. It’s very, well, 1950s, and truly sweet.
When we weren’t swimming, watching sunsets and driving, we ate, mostly on decks over the water, always something fishy, usually ending with Key Lime pie.
Beware — the folks here LOVE their fried food. Fish, oysters, whatever. It’s all battered and fried. Even if you order it grilled, make sure to tell them to go light on the butter sauce. Maybe a bit on the side, so you don’t miss a chance to taste the fish.
The other biggie here is shrimp … fried, of course, but also grilled and best, steamed. They’re large and fresh and sweet.
Don’t forget the Key Lime Pie
And then, there’s the Key lime pie. Yes, Key lime pie is from limes from the Florida Keys, nearly 1,000 miles to the south. I grew up with Key lime pie and its legend. It was supposedly concocted by Florida pioneers who had neither real milk or real refrigeration. The pioneer recipe calls for simply mixing Key lime juice, egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk till it curdles, then pouring the results into a graham cracker crust (graham cracker cookies mashed with a LOT of butter).
Things being what they are these days, you can’t serve raw eggs, so restaurants cook their pies. I remember an old pioneer variation that had you put the pie in the oven for 10 minutes to set the curds. My mom said that was okay. I just shoved mine in the ‘fridge.
How exactly this pie (it is served EVERYwhere in the Panhandle) became a signature dessert 1,000 miles from the Keys is beyond me. But in all the restaurants I tried, not a single one defiled the pie with that ghastly green food coloring that the ignorant use. And most left the meringue off, bless their honest hearts. (Okay, yeah, I know some insist meringue is correct but … well, that’s a debate for another day).
And on that note, both in my trip and here, the story ends. I ate my last oyster back at Boss on my way to a friend’s house. We shared one last Key lime pie.
And I promised to not look at the scale at home for at least a week.
If you go:
Check out Boss Oyster recipe and Yvette’s 50-year-old, no-fail Key Lime Pie recipe.
— Photos and text by Yvette Cordozo, RFT Contributor