PANHANDLE PRIME TIME

Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

They call the Florida Panhandle "The Forgotten Coast." And yes, it truly is. It's not the easiest place to reach. Public transportation can be difficult. Cell service is from another millennium. But wow, there's so much more.
    The oysters, for one.
    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, was on the market not that long ago for $275,000.
    It sat 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." I’m 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 13 different ways.
    Boss has two kinds of oyster Rockefeller (they call it Rockefella), plus something called Captain Jack with bacon, peppers, hot sauce and cheese. And there’s the Gooda Gooda (flame broiled and topped with caramelized onions, spicy Creole soy sauce and smoked cheese) which sounds a bit weird but is actually seriously yummy.
    To be honest, I think anything other than the least intrusive addition on an oyster is wrong. So my fav was, of course, raw on the half shell, nestled in ice.  
    However, I wanted to see how these tidbits came to our plate, so 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 one of the last places in the US where oysters are still fished with tongs.
    "Man, do you work out or something?" one of my friends asked Toby, who has a set of biceps a gymnast would envy.
    "Nope, just this."
    Another 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 undernote that fades quickly from oysters that are getting old.
    "Another?"
    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. While the BP oil spill didn’t affect oysters here, the water problems certainly have.
    It's an old and well known story here but not so much told outside. Basically there is a fight 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," Apalachicola chamber executive director John Solomon said. Anything that disrupts this 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.
    The oystermen, Solomon added, used to bring in 20 to 25 50-pound bags a day in Apalachicola Bay. Now its’s maybe seven. “But it IS starting to slowly come back,” he added.
    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 to the center of the Panhandle is a hard two day drive. From Gainesville, where I went to school, to Panama City Beach is a hard one day drive.
    That's why I never quite got there.
    Meanwhile, 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, 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 ... make sure you visit with Woody.
    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 endless 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 it.
    The other biggie here is shrimp ... fried, of course, but also grilled and best, steamed. They're large and fresh and sweet.
    And then, there's the Key lime pie. Yes, Key lime pie is from the Florida Keys, 600 plus miles to the south. I grew up with Key lime pie and its legend ... reportedly concocted by Florida pioneers who had neither real milk nor 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 so many 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.
     I promised to not look at the scale at home for at least a week.
                
IF YOU GO
    Visitors can go out on an oyster catching trip In Apalachicola Bay along with options for fishing, tours of the barrier islands and more. Go to the Apalachicola website, click on “things to do,” and go down to “fishing.” Several of the charters offer oyster catching tours.
* Boss Oyster in Apalachicola really does serve more than a dozen different kinds of oysters. The local favorite is the char grilled dozen for $16.95, followed by the iconic raw oysters for $6.95 a half dozen or $11.95 a dozen. Http://bossoyster.com/
* Saltwater Grill in Panama City Beach has this huge 25,000 gallon aquarium that takes over the entire center of the restaurant. If you are truly hungry, don’t miss the crispy fried calamari appetizer, topped with parmesan cheese and banana peppers, served with marinara sauce & sweet thai sauce for $8.99 and the grouper imperial, grilled grouper topped with crab meat and a white wine/lemon butter sauce for $30.99. And key lime pie $6.99.  Http://www.saltwatergrillpcb.com  
* Driftwood Inn - rooms start at $150 double occupancy weekdays, $165 weekends. Http://www.driftwoodinn.com  
* Gibson Inn - an historic, fully restored turn of last century, Victorian Inn built in old Florida “cracker” style in 1907 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Rooms start at $120, double occupancy. Http://www.gibsoninn.com/
Apalachicola -- http://www.apalachicolabay.org
Mexico Beach -- http://mexico-beach.com
Panama City Beach -- http://www.visitpanamacitybeach.com    

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