John Kessler - June 2014
The coastal topography of its once-vibrant food culture may be getting squeezed in an environmental vice, but chef Chris Hastings finds there’s still lots to discover and support along the Florida Panhandle’s Forgotten Coast. John Kessler rides along with Hastings to meet the locals.
"Welcome to Beautiful Panacea, Florida.” The wooden sign swings from a blue-and-red ship’s mast set upright in a gravel parking lot. Panacea, Florida, doesn’t look beautiful, at least not here along this two-lane highway clouded in dust and bordered by low-slung concrete buildings.
“Ice, Ice, Baby!” screams a roadside marquee. Fifty pounds for three bucks. Cheap.
It’s here that Chris Hastings makes his first stop along the stretch of the Florida Panhandle that locals call the Forgotten Coast. Picture that protuberant bump on the map. South of Tallahassee and the Apalachicola National Forest. East of Destin and its constellation of Truman Show resorts. So far west from the land of theme parks, orange groves, and retirees that it might as well be a different world.
Hastings bounds into the Mineral Springs Seafood & Bait shop, a dark room cooled by a standing fan and decorated mostly with alligator skulls, girlie calendars, and American flags. “Notice what you don’t smell here,” he says. “Fish.”
True that. The local flounder, oysters, and squid displayed in the ice case are only hours old. Then there’s a treat that makes Hastings’ eyes light up. “Hoppers!” he exclaims, at the sight of a mound of small pearl-gray shrimp, each with a telltale identifying spot on its side. “As far as I know, this part of Florida is the only place you can find them. They’re not kelp eaters, so they have a super clean flavor, very low in iodine.”
Hastings—the James Beard award-winning chef/co-owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama—loads his cooler. He buys tubs of local alligator dip and smoked mullet dip. He cleans out all the mullet roe from the shop’s freezer, and he scoops up the seven baby octopuses displayed on the ice, bycatch that arrived with the morning’s delivery.
“Ever get any ’dozers in the bycatch?” Hastings asks shopkeeper Archie Cruse, Jr., who stands positioned behind a gaping alligator skull that a local artist had covered in shiny mosaic tile.
“Naw, they get thrown over the rail,” Cruse says. “Ain’t no market for them.”
“Thrown over the rail? Damn!” Hastings exclaims. Just one man’s trash.
Local bulldozer lobsters (aka ’dozers) he explains, have ugly, squat, “prehistoric” faces but tail meat that’s sweeter than any Florida spiny lobster. Back in the day, there were enough ’dozers in the bycatch that he could get them shipped to his restaurant more than 300 miles away.
But those days are gone. There’s no panacea for the myriad problems that now bedevil this special corner of Florida. In recent years, the Forgotten Coast has fallen victim to the effects of drought and a pile-up of environmental changes encroaching from both directions—up from the Gulf of Mexico and down through the combined basin of the three rivers that empty into Apalachicola Bay. As a result, local fisheries have been literally decimated: Tommy Ward says his shellfish business, 13 Mile Oyster Company, is down to 9 percent of what it was just three years ago. Florida governor Rick Scott has pledged more than $6 million in disaster relief, with the bulk of the money going to habitat improvement.
Apalachicola Bay’s habitat, with its incredible diversity of sea life, developed thanks to what Hastings calls its “kick-ass micro-merrior.” “This is a special place, with its convection movement of fresh and salt water,” he says. “At their best, the oysters here were as good as any I’ve had in the world. I’m not kidding.”
Ten years ago, the menu at Hot and Hot Fish Club was filled with Apalachicola seafood. “I was buying oysters, shrimp, and gigged flounder. If you were in the right circles, you could get enough tripletail or bulldozers from the bycatch for a special. I was the only guy on the planet who had ‘dozers! Unfortunately, so many things have upset that apple cart.”
What hasn’t changed for Hastings are the people like Ward—growers, producers, and harvesters who keep the region’s food culture alive, and whom he visits year after year. “There are really unique people who live here in this difficult place. I wish this community could be recognized for the amazing resource it is.”
Hastings, a North Carolina native whose cooking career took him to Atlanta to work with Guenter Seeger at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead and then to Birmingham with Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill, first set eyes on the Forgotten Coast about 25 years ago. He and his buddies used to set out for long sport fishing weekends much farther west along the 30A, a coastal highway that birthed a string of pastel-hued and meticulously planned resorts. To escape the influx of Atlanta tourists, they kept heading east, looking for new fishing waters. They ventured past Panama City and down the coastline. When they hit the small town of Mexico Beach, they noticed that everything abruptly changed. The beaches, set on bays behind barrier islands, turned shallow and brown. The tourists disappeared. The sea life was extraordinary.
“It was a mindblower for me, as someone who loves to hunt and fish,” Hastings recalls. “You could put your mask on in St. Joe Bay and see seahorses.”
After loading his cooler with seafood, Hastings makes a beeline south to the shore. “This is where we’d typically put in,” he says, stopping his truck by the thin beach along Alligator Harbor, its waters still, a barrier spit on the horizon, the open sea just beyond. “It just blew my mind when we found this place. The tarpon fishing was epic, but we also caught redfish and speckled trout.” On still nights in shallow waters, Hastings could gig for flounder, spearing them with tridents from the side of a skiff.
Hastings returned over the years, bringing his wife and business partner, Idie, and their two sons for truly relaxing beach vacations. Here they were away from the throngs crowding every other Florida coastline. They ate better, too, as Hastings got to know the local food producers—people like the clammer Clayton Lewis, a wholesaler with a round, sea-reddened face who works with lease holders in the harbor.
Hastings meets Lewis at a nearby marina, where his low-slung clamming pontoon docks alongside triple-engine sport fishing boats. Lewis steers the boat into the harbor, its flat metal bottom slapping against the cross wake of a sport craft.
“The salinity’s high here,” Lewis shouts over the engine noise as he steers between the markers that designate the 46 leases granted by the Florida Department of Agriculture. “We’re always watching it, because it brings in predators, starting around 33 parts per thousand.” Salinity. This region’s fortunes rise and fall with the mingling of salt and water. Between the recent drought and the water wars with Georgia and Alabama, not enough freshwater comes down through the river basin.
Most clammers here seed their leases with littleneck clams, though in recent years an effort has been underway to increase production of native Sunray Venus clams. This striped, pink-shelled species is delicious as well as striking in appearance, but it has a grit sac that can’t be purged once they reach full size. (According to locals, Howard Johnson’s used to solve this problem by cutting around it to process the chain’s signature clam strips.)
Lewis pulls up alongside Carol and Chip Earl’s pontoon. Chip, in a wet suit, dives to a seabed where he retrieves net sacks of clams that have been resting and growing for three years.
“Ooh, I’m gonna be in a magazine,” Carol cackles cheerily from the side of the pontoon, striking a pinup pose when she catches sight of a photographer. Hastings buys a 25-pound bag of littleneck clams and opens one with a pen knife. “Damn, taste that!” he says, shucking one after another of the crisp, salty, silver-dollar bivalves to pass around.
Back before the recession, when the bay and the American economy were healthier, Hastings consulted for The St. Joe Company, a real estate developer that wanted to improve the food offerings at its resort restaurants. Aside from a couple of classic old fish camps, local restaurants were buying their seafood through distributors and were just as likely to serve Atlantic rockfish (striped bass), Alaska snow crab, or Vietnamese basa as anything local. Not only did Hastings work on the quality of the food served, he helped them to develop relationships with local fishermen and farmers. His consulting ended with the recession.
Clams in hand, Hastings then drives to the Sopchoppy Pizza Company, where the crust is made with tupelo honey, the local gold. Owners Dale Scott and Cody Solburg keep Florida microbrews, such as Swamp Head Big Nose IPA, on tap. On their alligator-shaped counter stands a display of kettle-cooked cane syrups that a friend makes nearby in this one-stoplight town.
“They’re kind of moldy now,” Cathy Sheats, who helps run Sopchoppy, protests when Hastings cracks one jar flavored with rosemary. “They’ve been around a while.”
“Ain’t gonna hurt nobody,” he laughs, pouring a trickle on his finger and licking it up before it can drip off. “Damn, that’s tasty,” he says. Scott, meanwhile, has steamed open some of the clams with wine, garlic, and butter and plucked out the meat to scatter over a pizza with red onions and mushrooms. Hastings, who can make himself at home anywhere, has scrounged rusks of bread in the kitchen and has started to sop up the clam broth. “The salinity is so effing perfect,” he says.
Joining Hastings for clam pizza is Jack Simmons, his old friend and onetime supplier of fruits and vegetables, who runs the nearby Crescent Moon Organic Farm.
“You’re a week early for the Worm Gruntin’ Festival,” Simmons jokes, evoking Sopchoppy’s claim to fame. This annual event—with live music, a 5K race, and contests—may be the nation’s only celebration of bait. Sopchoppy worm grunters drive wooden stakes called “stobs” into the ground and rub them with “rooping irons” to create underground vibrations that drive earthworms above ground. It’s a vital harvest.
Simmons is an instantly likable person, an old soul behind a weathered face, with an open smile but with mystery in his eyes. After traveling the world as a sailor for 27 years, he returned home to the Forgotten Coast and bought his land. He had no experience farming but figured he could make a go of it. “The sailing, that does something to you. You feel like you can do anything,” he explains.
After lunch, he invites Hastings over for a stroll around the farm, which benefits from a breezy river-basin microclimate that generally keeps it at least five degrees cooler than Tallahassee. He has managed to grow an astonishing variety of produce, from daikon, potatoes, and corn to peaches, apples, and berries. He also harvests cane, which he presses and boils into syrup the old way at his on-site sugar shack.
“WWOOFers” (“willing workers on organic farms,” as Simmons calls volunteers from the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) work the farm in exchange for food and shelter. They’re all gentle hippie children in sundresses, dreadlocks, and tattered jeans—Madison and Dillon from Indiana, Rainey and Sunflower from Tallahassee. They tag along for the tour, along with an ever-changing cast of dogs and cats and the occasional chicken. Dillon cradles a tiny green tree frog in his hands and smiles but doesn’t talk much.
Simmons starts the tour out in the farm’s small, cramped kitchen, filled with various fermenting things: pickles, kombucha, and sourdough bread made with an old culture called “Mama Creepy Pet.” In the freezer lies a fresh ham from a recently butchered hog, which Hastings quickly snaps up. There are also glass flacons of home-brewed beer, the only alcohol on the premises.
Simmons walks through the tilled fields, with their frilly mustards and carrot fronds, and then out to a field he hasn’t yet cultivated. The grasses are high and the vegetation encroaches from the sides, dark and impenetrable. Don’t be surprised, he warns, if a 15-foot rattlesnake crosses the path. “She hangs out around here,” he says, “and she’s never shown any aggression. But still. Talking about a rattlesnake and walking through an area like this can make you jumpy.”
Simmons used to have more restaurant accounts, including a weekly shipment to Hastings and a well regarded local inn. But these days he’s content running a one-man farmers’ market and keeping the farm self-sustaining. (When asked what she likes best about her life as a WWOOFer, Madison says simply, “Dinner.”)
Before leaving, Hastings asks for arugula, pea shoots, carrots, and three different varieties of greens, which Madison and Dillon venture out to the field to pick. He tries to press some money into Simmons’ hand and leaves, another full cooler in the back of his truck. An hour later he pulls into Apalachicola, the onetime center of Florida’s famed oyster industry, now a spiffed-up seaside town with small inns and restaurants that make a bid for the tourist trade. Alongside the old-timey fish houses are newer places serving duck-fat fries and boutique wines by the glass. “I think it’s about time for a beer,” Hastings says, cracking open yet a third cooler, this one holding Corona longnecks.
The next morning Hastings’ good friend Ward leads an oystering expedition out to St. Vincent Sound in the western part of the bay, beyond where the Apalachicola empties into it. The state grants leases here as well, but most were granted decades ago. Ward pulls up alongside Kendall Schoelles, anchored in his 158 acre lease and leaning over the side of his boat, aggressively dredging the sandy bay floor with a set of hinged tongs.
“This lease has been in my family since the late 1800s,” Schoelles says, his chin obscured by a foot of grey scraggle and his eyes shrunken to slits against the sun. “And I’m always watching out for the thieves who come at night. I’ve put four people in jail and hit eight or nine with fines.” As a young man, Schoelles worked on shrimp and oil boats in the gulf, but has spent the past 30 years oystering, long days on the water with only a portable radio for company.
He upends a haul of oyster clusters and breaks them up with an ice pick in his hands. “I’m culling the three-inch and up. But that’s what’s wrong in the bay now. Too many small ones.”
As the wind is coming from the east, it’s bringing along more fresh water from the river, changing the salinity in the sound and causing the oysters to spawn. He opens one to show the pale white liquor of a spawning oyster. “It’s like eating a wet piece of cotton,” he says, smiling and further wrinkling his already wrinkled nose. “It’s got that spawnin’ flavor, that milky aftertaste. I just can’t stand that.”
Schoelles will harvest 11 bags of oysters for a take-home of $440, not bad but not nearly what he could net five years ago. He’ll bring the oysters back to Ward’s hulking but now mostly dormant 13 Mile Oyster Company processing plant, a family business that Ward grew when the growing was good. Looming next to the plant is a Sisyphean mountain of fossilized oyster shells from a nearby mining pit. “It’s clutch material, something for the spat to land on,” Ward says. “It’ll take two years for a spat to mature enough to harvest, so we won’t know for a while if it works.”
Ward is willing to try anything, even giving up on the wild harvest that has been so abundant for so many years and seeding the bay with outside oyster spat. What’s killing the oysters?
“Ha, where to start?” Ward asks, a weary smile on his lips. “One, there’s not enough fresh water coming down the rivers. People are damming it up because they don’t know how to share. Two, predators from the bay are moving in, mostly conch. Three, overharvest. Dealers these days buy little oysters.” He didn’t even get into the BP oil spill.
Ward looks down to the ground and espies a perfect king conch shell, with its “crown” of pointy ridges along the top, the kind of shell you’d buy in a beach shop. He picks it up and chucks it as far away as he can. He’s got a good arm.
The last stop before dinner is a visit with George Watkins, who raises honeybees in barges on the Apalachicola River for tupelo honey. This famous local honey, made from the white gum of Ogeechee tupelo trees, is not only renowned for its mild flavor but also a unique property: it’s low in dextrose and high in the simple sugar levulose, so it never crystallizes. A well-spoken man with a soft voice and gentlemanly demeanor, Watkins has been harvesting honey for 20 years, and his family has been in the area for four generations. But the worldwide honeybee die-off has cut his production by nearly 50 percent. “I can’t even put my honey in the Piggly Wiggly anymore,” he says. “They’d just buy it all out.”
After a full day of cooking, it’s time for Hastings to turn all this local booty into a feast. He has maxed out every square inch of his Apalachicola waterfront rental’s kitchen. Ward arrives with two of his grown children, Kevin and Sara. Kevin works in information technology, but Sara, a Florida State senior, sees a future in the family business. She wants to extend the 13 Mile brand to a downtown seafood restaurant. She also wants to come home from Tallahassee. “I’m sick of living in the city,” she laughs.
A half dozen other guests arrive, and Hastings starts showering them with food. He has soaked the oysters in salt water to rid them of their spawn flavor, and broiled them simply with herbed bread crumbs. He sets out strips of duck breast prosciutto made from wild birds he hunted and salumi made in-house at Hot and Hot Fish Club.
Then Hastings invites everyone to the table, and the food really starts to flow. He tops asparagus with mounds of painstakingly peeled hoppers, as sweet and crisp as any shrimp, and pea shoots, all dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. “Hoppers are the harbinger of spring,” he says, passing out more beers and refilling wine glasses.
He wraps mullet roe in diaphanous lardo to place over creamy Anson Mills grits, and bathes breaded portions of flounder in buttery fumet and mounds them with local gray shrimp. The pork leg has spent all day braising to fall-apart tenderness with carrots, greens, and sauerkraut for a flavor that’s neither strictly German nor Southern, but both and neither. It tastes like it could only be of this place. Ward raises his glass to Hastings with the local toast: “As they say, a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”
After the guests are gone, leftovers distributed, and the dishes cleaned, Hastings grabs the last bottle of wine in the house and splays out in the living room by the open French doors. “Just walking the land with George, and harvesting clams with Clayton, and spending time with Tommy and his family…it’s good for me. I need to be here. It connects me back to the people.” Does he think that the situation will improve?
“I don’t know,” Hastings says, draining his glass. “It’s not so much that I buy from them anymore but that I support them. It’s like friendship forever. They always inspire me.”
Hastings looks out through the French doors to the bay: clear, still, sick. “The tattered edge. That’s where we are.”
John Kessler is the dining critic and editor at the Atlanta Journal–Constitution.