Florida requires acquaintance with oysters and limes, as well as with the sun
By Christine Barbour
October 22, 2003
I am in Apalachicola, Florida, much of this semester, working on a book about how a small town handles big changes. The changes that this little fishing village faces come from developers, environmentalists, government regulators and even people in Atlanta, who want to hang on to the water in the Chattahoochee River.
Normally, that water flows to join the Apalachicola and helps to nurture the oysters, shrimp, and fish from which so many in Apalachicola try to make a living. All of that is a fascinating, but long story, about food, politics, economics and how a town defines its future.
This present, much shorter story is about Key lime pie, or at least that's what I said it would be before I left Bloomington. I love Key lime pie. The idea of writing a column on it, and having a reason to eat it every day, seemed like a brilliant idea.
Really good Key lime pie, made from tiny green key limes, is at once very tart and sweet, and pale greenish-yellow in color. In Key West, they get really cute with it there are all kinds of Key lime confections, including a frozen wedge of Key lime pie, dipped in chocolate, served on a stick. It makes an impressive lollipop. But I don't think any of that is as good as a plain piece of pie in a graham cracker crust, with maybe a little bit of whipped cream to smooth out the pucker.
As I drove down to Apalachicola from the Tallahassee airport, though, it occurred to me that I was missing the culinary boat. Key lime pie is not native to northern Florida, even though tourist demand has put it on almost every menu you'll see here.
I wanted to write about food that was really from where I was going, and once I started to think about it, the answer was obvious, if unwelcome. The subject of a food column written in Apalachicola ought really to be the famous Apalachicola Bay oyster.
The only trouble with this plan is that I don't like oysters. Before this trip I had eaten exactly two of them one drenched in fiery red cocktail sauce and the other, a good 10 years later, chased with half a sleeve of saltines.
Truthfully, I had no idea whether I liked the taste of oysters or not. In fact, their taste seemed almost irrelevant. It was the slitheriness. And the idea of eating a living thing. It was indeed a bold soul, as Jonathan Swift pointed out, who first ate an oyster (no doubt without the assistance of either cocktail sauce or crackers.)
But there is no denying that oysters engage the imagination as well as the appetite. They are secretive (as close as an oyster), explosive with possibilities (the world is my oyster), and perhaps even an aphrodisiac (take away oysters and Cupid's bow is broken).
I became determined that if I was going to write a book about the town that is home to what some consider the finest oyster around, I would have to come to terms. I decided I would eat oysters at every opportunity until I came to love them.
I began my mission at lunch that same day at the Owl Café in Apalachicola, starting with fried oysters. Everything tastes better fried, right? Thirty of them showed up, hot, crispy and salty on the outside, but, well, soft squishy oysters on the inside. I ate five of them, going for the smallest of the bunch, and considered it a job well done.
Twenty five of them went back to the kitchen, dismaying the waitress who looked at me with deep concern. I explained the project, and told her I was just really full. "Oh," she said, relieved. "They are so good." Right. I assured her they were indeed.
Next day, I sat in Papa Joe's Oyster Bar with Gibby Conrad, who runs a local estuary boat tour. I again confessed the project, and discussed it with the waitress there, who said that they'd be willing to sell me one, maybe two oysters on the half shell. That was a huge relief right there (I couldn't face even a half of a whole dozen), but Gibby had an even better idea. Rather than eating one raw (and alive, he kindly reminded me) I could try them baked. He liked them with butter and parmesan.
These sounded like ingredients I could get my head around. I ate two. Very buttery and parmesany. I'm not sure if they were oystery or not. Gibby ate the remaining four. I didn't hate them, but what I say is, if you are going to eat butter and parmesan, why not throw in a little cream and toss it with fettuccini? Hold the oysters.
Two nights later, I still hadn't found an oyster I liked, though I'd talked to a lot of people about eating oysters. Incidentally, I hadn't eaten any great Key lime pie, either. Popular recommendations on the pie front sent me out to a restaurant in Eastpoint, on Fla. 98, called That Place on 98. It was hard to miss.
I sat out on the deck overlooking Apalachicola Bay with the setting sun in my eyes. Nathan, my waiter and the sometime cook was, like everyone around here, friendly and happy to help introduce me to oysters. Sure, I could have just one or two he'd just go crack them open for me himself. In fact, they weren't really on the menu, but he had a way of fixing oysters that nobody doesn't like.
I bet him he was wrong there, but I was game. They weren't busy yet, so he went back into the kitchen and fixed them for me. He opened the oysters, sprinkled them with Cajun spices, put them face down on the hot grill for a minute and blackened them. He brought me six. Surprising myself, I ate them all. They were good. If you could forget they were oysters, they were even wonderful. Spicy, briny, peppery, I don't know maybe even oystery. And as a bonus, I had fantastic Key lime pie for dessert.
I have made clear oyster progress here, but I still haven't learned to enjoy an oyster the way real Apalachicola Bay oyster aficionados say you ought to icy cold and quivering on the half shell. But I don't despair. The weekend of Oct. 31-Nov. 1 is the 40th Annual Seafood Festival in Apalachicola three days of festivities including the crowning of King Retsyo (get it?), who arrives with Miss Florida Seafood on a shrimp boat, and both an oyster shucking and an oyster eating contest. I will have lots of opportunity to become an oyster lover the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.