by Ari Weinzweig
While we are in the depths of Michigan winter, we’re at the height of brightness when it comes to the season for savoring oysters from Florida’s Forgotten Coast. They come in nicely from November through April, and the coldest months – January, February and March – is when they’re at their sweetest. So, let me be the first to welcome you in to taste and toast the good people and the great tasting treats from a part of the world few folks ever get to see.
Oysters are a subject I’ve been studying hard for the last few years. I’ve read a bunch of books, visited a half dozen oyster producers and three times that many websites, and started teaching oyster classes. My particular interest in oysters from Apalachicola came about because I had the chance to travel down that way last spring.
Apalachicola is really about working people and a long-standing natural resource. The name Apalachicola means “those who live on the other side” in the Lower Cree language. It doesn’t really have any colonial background because it was settled straight away by American citizens only after the US took ownership of the area from Spain in 1821. The town got going in the 1830s as a major center for cotton export, in the process becoming the third largest port on the Gulf. Then, as now, it had only a small year round population; in the summer the town emptied out, then livened up again in the fall and winter.
The seafood trade got going in earnest in the 1880s, so much so that the streets were literally paved with oyster shells. By the end of the 19th century, Apalachicola was producing 10 percent of the country’s annual oyster crop. That said, it’s still a small town; the present day population is under 3000, with about twice that many living in the unincorporated areas outside of town. This is where you’ll find Tommy Ward and 13 Mile, our source for Apalachicola oysters.
Most of the oysters we’re getting from Apalach are from some of the last commercially worked wild oyster beds in the country. By contrast, nearly all the other oysters we get are farmed. There’s something about the connection to the wild, about the way of life that goes with it, about being able to eat an oyster that grew, as its ancestors did, on its own out in the bay.
The oysters that we get from Apalachicola are unique in flavor – meatier, more buttery. They look different too. Bigger and craggier, sort of rumpled and disheveled in contrast to the smaller, tighter, and smoother shells of oysters from more northerly climes. Also, because the water is so much warmer, they grow faster – ready to eat in under two years.
A lot of the Apalach oysters are still taken from the water using the old 19th century technique, known down that way as “tonging the bay.” The work is done from small boats, generally one or two guys on each, working with a set of oyster tongs that are somewhere between eight and fourteen feet long with a set of iron teeth at the end of each pole. The hardest part is lifting the oysters out of the water. While standing on the edge of a boat, you put the tongs down to the bottom of the bay. Jiggle ’em around a bit to get the teeth to take, then you sort of bounce the tong handles gently towards each other, gathering up as many oysters as you can from the bottom. A good tonger can take up to 30 pounds at a time, which is great for yields, but it’s hard on the shoulders. Tonging takes pretty serious upper arm strength – it’s not easy getting the oysters up and out of the water while holding the tongs closed so you don’t drop everything back in.
The Terrific Taste of the Oysters
A third generation oysterman from rural Florida, I met Tommy Ward first down in Apalach last spring, then again in Oxford, Mississippi, at the Southern Foodways Symposium this past October.
One thing I’ve learned in my limited time with Tommy is that he’s very dedicated to his town and to the people who work at 13 Mile. The place was pretty much nearly totaled by Hurricane Dennis a few years ago, but Tommy worked seven days a week for over a year to put it all back together, maintaining jobs and tradition in the process. He regularly mentions that 13 Mile employs over sixty people, and that most have spouses and kids to support from their work. He’s also very proud of his oysters – oystering is his passion, not just a way to make a living. “I pride myself in having the best oyster in the world,” he told Amy Evans. “We have the best oysters in the whole world right here in this bay.”
From Apalach to Ann Arbor
Joe York put it to me pretty nicely I think – “like the oysters, these outstanding people live separated from those outside of their culture by a shell of skepticism and suspicion, and that shell takes some work to get through, but once inside, you will find there are few things better, and that getting there was worth all the effort.”
I’m glad that we did the work to get Tommy’s oysters up here. I don’t think they’ve ever been to Michigan. I appreciate the efforts of everyone down at 13 Mile and also out at the Roadhouse to get them all the way here from Apalachicola. I hope you get to come by and taste Tommy’s oysters. The season runs through the end of April, so now’s the time. If, by chance, you’re down Apalachicola way, by all means head out to 13 Mile and tell ’em you’re from Ann Arbor. I have a feeling that you’ll quickly be welcomed as one of the family and be eating some really good oysters!