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The Forgotten Coast

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The Forgotten Coast
Text by Rien Fertel / Photos by Denny Culbert

FLORIDA’S PANHANDLE PATH IS FILLED WITH OYSTER BARS, ARTISAN COCKTAILS, AND LOTS OF FRESH SEAFOOD.

There was not one boat at sea.

This detail, a memory as quickly remembered as forgotten, returned to me days later; it should have been my first sign. To my left and right, the waters of the river and bay, sizzled by the early-September dawn, sat quiet. The horizon, rising directly in front of my dockside table, broken only by the flight of feeding seabirds, seemed eerily empty. A few hundred miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, a storm, remnants of Hurricane Isaac, spun aimlessly, but here floated silent blue skies.

At the waterfront restaurant, Caroline’s, I ordered a dozen oysters (“our bay jewels”) and fresh, hand-squeezed orange juice, the only two items listed on the breakfast menu under the heading “Always.” Oysters and O.J. at dawn—normally not my go-to morning meal. But this daybreak I found myself in Apalachicola, home to the South’s most prized bivalve, and I’d long envied the half-shell slurpers of this fishing community, a place known for harvesting superior specimens. So I didn’t hesitate when ordering the oysters, or, because I was in Florida, the orange.

Joined by my frequent travel assignment accomplice, Denny Culbert, I’d gone searching for the “Old Florida,” the “Real Florida,” phrases that litter road signs, promotional literature, and the lips of residents along the state’s western Panhandle region, a tri-county area stretching roughly from Panama City east to Tallahassee. For our road trip, we hugged the shoreline along U.S. Route 98, always within sight of water and piney woods. Since the early 1990s, local boosters have dubbed this area the “Forgotten Coast” because, as the story goes, state officials forgot to include it on the official tourism map. The Forgotten Coast’s appeal lies in its near total opposition to its western neighbor, the Emerald Coast, a.k.a. the Redneck Rivera, a stretch of white sand, bad restaurants, and underage drinking—at least that’s how I remember my teenage summers spent in the highrise-condominium Hell that is Destin, Florida.

A Backbone In Commercial Fishing

In many towns we visited along the Forgotten Coast, residents bragged about local laws limiting the height of buildings and thus keeping out the tourist hoards. The bays, rivers, and estuaries here rank as some of the most ecologically diverse and least polluted in the nation. An authentic, aquacultural paradise, the Forgotten Coast’s backbone is commercial fishing, an industry that has long generated thousands of jobs, dozens of restaurants worth visiting, and some damn fine Apalachicola Bay oysters.

So back to those oysters: they were sweet and salty, though, perhaps because it is still summer and not the best season for growth, a bit small. With just a lemon squeeze, they went down clean. We walked down Water Street to 13 Mile Oyster Market, purveyors of Franklin County’s best bivalves, shrimp, crab, and fish. I asked employee Brandon Hewitt if locals ate oysters for breakfast. “No,” he shook his head, “that’s for visitors.” At least he didn’t call me a tourist; still, strike one against my uncovering the authentic Florida. It was then that 13 Mile owner Tommy Ward, arguably the most famous oysterman in America, entered the room.

“It’s over with for me. Everything’s fixing to be gone,” Ward barked out. Meaning the business his father, Buddy Ward, built in 1957; meaning Apalachicola town and Franklin County; meaning the lowly oyster—all threatened with extinction. All gone. The Apalachicola Bay, and some of its surrounding watery environs, are suffering, and the seafood industry, and thus thousands of jobs, are in crisis. There has been a perfect storm of events. Years of drought, along with dams built upriver along the Chattahoochee to fill Atlanta’s reservoirs, have not allowed enough water to flow down the Apalachicola River and into the Bay, thus upsetting the perfect fresh-to-salt water balance in which area oysters thrive. The recession and housing market crash forced hundreds more blue-collar workers to make a living from the Bay, thus possibly leading to overfishing, a problem only further exacerbated by 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, when, with the creeping menace of oil, the Bay was nearly emptied of oysters. Then there is BP’s use of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico, which the vast majority of Apalachicola Bay fishermen blame for killing their catch. Before this confluence of events, Tommy Ward had thirty to forty boats selling him up to 500 sixty-pound bags of oysters a day. Today, he hires out just two to three oystermen. One of those fisherman, Kendall Schoelles, a thirty-year veteran of the Bay, pulls in just six to seven bags a day, about a third of his pre-crisis harvest.

Deocorating Oysters Like Pizzas

Photo by Denny Culbert
Photo by Denny Culbert

Today, fishermen still haul seafood out of Apalachicola Bay. The oyster industry, damaged to nearbroken, continues to operate at a heartbeat’s murmur. Tommy Ward has decided to struggle on. Several restaurants determinedly serve 13 Mile’s superlative oysters. Down at the far north end of town, near the marina where dozens of shrimp and crab boats dock and an oyster shell midden pile towers two stories high, Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill sells a dozen 13 Mile oysters at a middling price. They also decorate half-shell baked oysters like pizzas with toppings piled high: all sorts of cheese, bacon, peppers, and even crab dip. I sampled three halfdozens and felt richer than John D. Rockefeller and his eponymous dish.

This summer, tourist numbers jumped higher than in previous years. Over three days traveling in the area, I did not see one restaurant that looked recently shuttered. In fact, several have opened post- Great Recession, post-oil spill. The Hole in the Wall Seafood & Raw Bar will make three years this October. Debi Fletcher, co-owner with her husband Jeff, told me that the couple “thought they might be the last raw bar to ever open on the Gulf Coast.” The Fletchers, both seventh-generation Floridians, carved out an establishment that melds history with hip. This pocket of a joint contains a beauty of a handhewn wooden bar with a tree sprouting from the far end and a repurposed anchor chain for a foot rail. They smoke their own tuna for the dip—preparing it only when local yellowfin is available—and offer the best gumbo I have ever eaten outside of Louisiana: done in the Cajun-style, dark-roux, and stuffed with shredded chicken and andouille sausage.

Last December, Susan Gary, mastermind behind the Owl Cafe, since 1997 one of Apalachicola’s few fine-dining options, launched the Tap Room. With beers listed by alcohol-by-volume percentage and an au courant cocktail list, the drinks menu looked straight out of any gentrifying urban neighborhood. I chose a Bee’s Knees, made with Uncle Val’s botanical gin, lemon, simple syrup, and local tupelo honey. Bees gather that honey from white-flowering tupelo gum trees along the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers. Sold at roadside stands throughout the Forgotten Coast and dubbed the “Cadillac of all Honey,” it pairs with several spirits on the Tap Room’s bar menu and most lusciously gilds the pecan and tupelo baklava topped with tupelo ice cream.

Photo by Denny Culbert  
Photo by Denny Culbert

Put The Bottlecaps In Your Pockets

Small batch gin and locavore desserts? I began to question what exactly the “real” in the Real Florida meant and headed west out of town along Highway 30A, just past mile thirteen, to Indian Pass. On this college football Saturday, regulars pulled up in golf carts (tricked-out and apparently not interested in ever making a tee time). Rarely does one receive the opportunity to walk into a bar and not know how to order a drink. The Indian Pass Raw Bar, however, presents thirsty patrons with the honor system. “Grab a beer from the coolers in the back,” a teenage server explained, “put the bottlecaps in your pocket, and just pay when you leave.” The same goes for the tap: pour a plastic cupful and try to keep track of how many you imbibed. Now I’m not sure if their playbefore- pay system ranks as old-school, but the Raw Bar at least feels weirdly authentic.

The day before, while blasting the peerless Oyster Radio (WOYS 100.5 FM), we’d gone east across the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge to Carrabelle, Florida (motto: “Get Hooked”). Across the street from a hotel/marina with a banner advertising a “Free Boat Slip With Stay,” we stopped to eat at The Fisherman’s Wife, an aptly named full-scale restaurant. The fisherman, Jim Lycett, provides the shrimp, and his wife, Pam, cooks. We ordered a bucket of “peel n’ eats,” white Gulf shrimp fished by one of Captain Jim’s two boats, Ichiban and Pirate’s Sons. After we chowed on grilled lemon pepper grouper and fried oysters, Pam, who was grandmotherly and inviting and just downright charming, gave us a tour. I asked her about the kitchen, which looked like a recreational vehicle linked to the rear of the restaurant. For four years she operated out of what she called “a red trailer” but what trend chasers like us would call a food truck. But Pam wanted out of the heat and her customers into seats. In June of 2011, her contractor moved the red trailer down the road and docked it to the building to create perhaps the world’s only food truck with dining rooms attached. We left Carrabelle stuffed, starry-eyed, and completely hooked by Pam.

Next, we drove east into Wakulla County, where the landscape became soggier, the air stickier. In the unincorporated community of Panacea, we found Posey’s Up the Creek Steam Room & Oyster Bar, there skipping oysters for the flounder lunch special. Served whole and gigged just steps away in Dickerson Bay, the perfectly fried flounder could not quite pull my attention away from every waitresses’ footwear: white shrimping boots. Locals call them Panacea Nikes.

Eastward, past Panacea, the highway curved inland, away from the marshy estuaries of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and our Oyster Radio reception faded to static. We stopped in tiny St. Marks, where, from there on to West Palm Beach, Route 98 loses its coastal character. It was the hottest eighty-nine-degree day I’ve ever experienced, and overlooking the St. Marks River, we ordered a bad margarita, fantastic fried pickles, and a surprisingly wonderful burger at the Riverside Cafe. The place was dressed up like an MTV Spring Break House: neon pink and florescent green paint, beach umbrellas, and signs that condoned ghastly behavior (“It’s a flip-flop kind of day!”). Frustrated, tired, and despondent, I begin to question the existence of the Real Florida.

Photo by Denny Culbert
Photo by Denny Culbert

A Sunny Shangri-la

I went for a walk in search of the authentic. Directly next door to the Riverside Cafe, I discovered a massive concrete slab covered in broken bits of tile, wood, and glass. Here had stood Posey’s Oyster Bar, a 1930s-era landmark famous for its smoked mullet. Founder T. J. Posey—only distantly related to the Posey’s of Panacea—even claimed to have invented the hush puppy. But in 2005, Hurricane Dennis washed Posey’s away; the clapboard building sat condemned until being razed just last December.

I stood on the former floor of Posey’s, perhaps the realest of old Florida oyster bars, and gazed at the St. Marks River. Steps away, a fisherman ignored me while casting his line into the still water. I realized then and there that we had found the real Florida everywhere we traveled. Kitsch and culture, restaurants young and old, artisan cocktails and bottled margarita mix, oysters raw and overloaded, flip-flops and shrimping boots. Florida is all these things and everything. Florida is real and unreal, a sunny Shangri-la and a state in shambles. Florida is an area I’ve been visiting all my life and a place I have just discovered.

I walked across the street to the delightfully ramshackle Bo Lynn’s Grocery & Market and asked owner Miss Joy Brown if she remembered the day they tore old Posey’s down. She spun around as if to look through and past the wall to where the Oyster Bar once stood. “I’ve been here forty-five years,” she said. “That was a sad thing.” Florida’s Forgotten Coast might be real, and then again it might not, but the oysters, oystermen, and oyster shacks, both here now and in history, will not soon be forgotten.

Mentioned in this post:
Denny Culbert