Gatherers, locavores relish Florida's gulf
APALACHICOLA, Fla. - "Getting the food yourself. That's something you can pass on," said Carrie Ozment as he waded into a rare interior dune lake on Florida's northwest coast. Clearly visible through the amber-stained water were dozens of enormous blue crabs, easily taken with Ozment's nylon net or, for the brave, by firmly pressing the crabs' blue-green shells against the sand and lifting them by the pincers, as Chris Hastings was showing his guests how to do.
For centuries if not eons, northwest Florida has been a lure for hunter-gatherers from neighboring landlocked areas.
"Between Alligator Harbor and Port St. Joe is an unbelievable food source," said Hastings, who scours the area's waters and woods for his Birmingham, Ala., restaurant, Hot and Hot Fish Club. Now as more people come for the beaches - extraordinary beaches whose every new draping of sand looks like fresh snow - a loose alliance of locavores hopes to reconnect travelers with nature and nurture. Hastings's lure is a four-day odyssey of hunting, gathering, cooking, and eating that he leads several times a year.
In a part of Florida where everything is not candy-coated for prime time tourism, the trip artfully weaves people and place at both ends of the food chain. One minute, Hastings was orchestrating a crab boil at the opulent gray-shingled WaterSound Beach Club near Santa Rosa. The next, his guests were hunkered down in a banged-up skiff with waterman Kendall Schoelles, skimming across mud-brown Apalachicola Bay to harvest its famous oyster beds.
In the western part of the bay known as The Miles (the "mile" in a shore name refers to its distance from Apalachicola's John Gorrie Bridge), Schoelles dropped anchor at mile 13 in the lee of St. Vincent Island where the oysters are said to be the best. A local legend in oystering, Tommy Ward owns the majority of the oyster bed leases here and the respect of area chefs.
"Tommy's one of those people who are disproportionately passionate about what they do," said Hastings. "He's vital to his industry."
Ward's facility on shore road C-30 is a good place to buy retail and watch men weighing their haul and women shucking it, jobs that have sustained local families for generations.
While Schoelles demonstrated harvesting oysters with a giant wooden scissors-like contraption, amateurs were raking up a feast on public beds with little more than a fishing license and basic gardening tools.
"A short-tined rake works well," suggested Josh Hodson, assistant manager at St. George Island State Park, which has a stunning 9-mile barrier island beach accessible by a 4-mile bridge from Eastpoint. Visitors will find oyster beds within wading distance on the park's bay side at low tide.
After a few hours on the water, even the upper-body builders in the group were ready to trade tonging for a cold beer and a dozen on the half shell at Indian Pass Raw Bar. The no-frills roadhouse in Port St. Joe's boasts its own leased beds.
But the bay means more than oysters. On the historic, still-working waterfront of Apalachicola the displays at the Marine Estuarine Research Center explain with 4-H Club simplicity how almost every sea creature in the Gulf of Mexico spends some part of its life there. Dwayne and Sandra Allen offer a unique guide service on the bay with a "teach a man or woman to fish" philosophy. Along with oyster tonging and culling, they'll show you how to wade the flats looking for flounder buried in the sand and gig (spear) one for dinner.
Apalachicola's estuarine bounty draws some big names for a place not yet visible on world travelers' radars. On Santa Rosa Beach, Fish Out Of Water chef Philip Krajeck was inspired to drop imported French quail from his menu and add local stone crabs garnished with cornmeal-fried, Gulf-grown Meyer lemons. In downtown "Apalach," as the city of 3,000 was historically known, David Carrier sat in a porch rocker at the Gibson Inn showing guests a lovely bisque-colored Sunray Venus clam. Carrier, formerly a chef at California's French Laundry, was creating a tasting menu around the native bivalve under trial cultivation in Alligator Harbor.
The simplest restaurants can be the most telling of the bay's magical food properties. On the back porch of Boss Oyster where the menus read, "Shut up and shuck," I dipped my spoon into the best bowl of chowder of my life.
"What's in it?" I asked, expecting the recipe must be guarded with someone's life.
"Just oysters, cream, chicken broth and, ah, paprika," said the waitress. If ever there was a case for the quality of the raw product, I had just tasted it.
But it's not just about seafood.
Next to the fish tanks at the Estuarine Center, George Watkins, a measured talker, was holding forth at a bee observation hive. Watkins harvested everything the bay has to offer before turning to honey. Here where the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers nourish the highest density of tupelo gum trees in the world, he and other beekeepers bottle raw, unmixed tupelo honey so pure it doesn't granulate. My first taste of tupelo was another lifetime best. So it was apparently for director Victor Nunez, who found his inspiration for "Ulee's Gold" while visiting the Lanier family's hives in Wewahitchka.
The honey sells in local stores for about $6, or you can visit the Laniers near Dead Lakes and buy direct.
Down a wooded dirt road, things were going on all at once at Jack Simmons's Crescent Moon Farm. Out of the ground, obsessively enriched with vegetable composts and teas, came the most beautiful greens and sprouts, not to mention persimmons and Muscadine grapes. Biodiesel workshops were on offer - the tractor, backhoe, and truck run on free frying oil - and oil seed crops were being planned.
"We're trying to graduate to where we were in the 1940s," said Simmons, who used to run a 58-foot charter ketch in the Virgin Islands. The hands welcome visitors between turns on the tractor and you can buy direct on vegetable picking days. Simmons participates in World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms, whose members offer food, accommodation, and learning opportunities in exchange for volunteer help.
Two miles away, Clayton Lewis rents kayaks for paddling the blackwater Sopchoppy River in Apalachicola National Forest, and also retails organic cherrystones from his own leased beds.
The culmination of Hastings's trip was a languorous meal composed of everything the land and water had offered up, prepared in a restaurant kitchen that he had helped design. Guests and friends were put to work shucking oysters, which were eaten as quickly as they were opened, and peeling shrimp for paella, until a long table overflowed with bountiful, simple foods.
The faces were pink-cheeked from the outdoors, the voices fervent. Tom McGee from Toronto spoke of feeling "a call to action, like starting a garden." Linda Ozment wanted her supermarket to carry locally grown produce. Carrie Ozment, a doctor, spoke of battling obesity with high nutrition foods.
Hastings looked happily around the table. A little of his passion had rubbed off.
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.