I pushed away my plate and picked up my purse to leave The Fisherman’s Wife and move on, but at the last minute I pulled out my phone and took a photo of the only bite left on my plate. One crescent of cornbread was all that remained of a meal of fried shrimp, cheese grits, coleslaw and hushpuppies.
I took the photo because I’d already made one call to my husband telling him I’d found a place he might want to visit and he might never want to leave and I knew the hushpuppy—the Southern staple of seasoned cornmeal batter, fried crisp and brown—would strike its mark. But I also took it because I’d been trying to think of the best way to describe the unique personality of the north coast of a state that is probably best known for the broad beaches, busy theme parks and bustling cities on the lower half of the peninsula. Looking down at my empty plate, I found my answer. In a lot of ways, the food—the seafood—is the key.
It’s impossible to spend any time in that part of Florida and not be offered a fresh Apalachicola oyster, pulled out of the bay that morning, shucked and served on a saltine cracker and dressed with horseradish and hot sauce. Afternoons become “Oyster Hour” when local restaurants serve up more fresh oysters with laughter, gossip and plenty of cold beer. Dinner might be Grouper or a basket of grilled oysters or fat Gulf shrimp, butterflied, battered and fried or simply boiled and seasoned and then served ready to peel and eat. Life centers around the bounty and it is served up fresh and simply prepared.
The cluster of small communities in Franklin County, Florida, the largest of which is Apalachicola, or Apalach, as the locals call the small picturesque waterfront town, has shown a unique ability to reinvent itself to fit the times. At various points in its history the county was home to one of the busiest ports on the Gulf of Mexico. It was the site of a thriving sponge market and later an important Southern timber hub. Times and industry have changed but the one constant has been and still is the rich variety of seafood harvested locally by people who are deeply rooted in the community. People like the fisherman married to the fisherman’s wife who’d served up fresh-caught shrimp for my lunch.
While there, I met people who’ve lived in the county for generations and others who moved to the area to get away from the larger and busier world. I met a few first-time visitors like myself. But I quickly discovered we all have something in common. We love the slow pace of life. We love the natural beauty of the coastline and rivers and estuaries, and all the wildlife that come with them. And we really, really, love the food.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org