Foraging the Forgotten Coast

by Dan Huntley - Florida - Jan/Feb 08

Preparing a seaside feast in Apalachicola

Chris Hastings didn't grow up here among the dense forests of slash pines that ring the sugar-white beaches of the Forgotten Coast, along Florida’s Panhandle. But it’s here that this Birmingham, Alabama, chef, who was raised on summers foraging for seafood in the South Carolina Lowcountry, feels most at home.

“We’re water people, and when it’s time to get away from the restaurant and relax, this is where we bring our family… It’s what Florida used to be,” says Hastings as he prepares to lead a three-day chautauqua — a talking, walking, eating blitz — through the Forgotten Coast, which some say derives its name from being omitted from a state tourism map.

On our trip south from the Tallahassee airport to Alligator Point, on the Gulf, and then to Port St. Joe, Hastings is part travel guide and part evangelist for his beloved Apalachicola Bay oysters, known worldwide for their sweet briny succulence, and for the amber-colored nectar gathered from the banks of the Apalachicola River to make tupelo honey.

After three days of pre-dawn fishing; visiting seafood shacks for soft-shell crabs, Florida “hopper” shrimp and oysters; climbing aboard a fishing barge to help harvest Alligator Point clams; and driving down winding sandy paths through cabbage palm woods to Eden-like organic farms, Hastings will have the food he needs for beachside bonfires and bacchanalia.

He will fill his coolers and rental car trunk with freshly shot plum-colored dove breasts; buckets of oysters still dripping with seawater; cheese platters with toasted pecans and fresh chèvre with opal basil from the Sweet Grass Dairy on the Florida-Georgia border; local tupelo honey; green tomato chutney; heirloom tomatoes, roasted eggplant, baby lettuces, arugula, and mizuna from Crescent Moon Organic Farm in nearby Sopchoppy; fresh sourdough bread with rouille; locally caught snapper and redfish; Alma figs; and lemon verbena for ice cream.

Along the way, Hastings will introduce me to the often overlooked purveyors of this coastline’s horn of plenty — among them the white-booted oyster tongers who tote the eighty-pound burlap sacks of bivalves to the docks, and the scruffy-bearded organic farmers who deliver woven baskets of buckwheat sprouts and peppery arugula to the back doors of restaurants. I had been eager to make this trip since folklorist Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) posted on the SFA Web site twenty-five oral histories and myriad photographs of the people who work the water and land here, and I learned just how exceptional Apalachicola is.

Hastings is quick to acknowledge what he thinks is a much-needed shift in emphasis in the food industry: chefs sharing credit with farmers and fishermen as the new rock stars of American food. “You can leave all the self-important chefs behind,” he says. “It’s about people who put their hands in the dirt. Because at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.”

 

Hastings’ connection to the food and the land predates the era of celebrity chefs. He is co-owner, with his wife, Idie, of the celebrated Hot and Hot Fish Club restaurant in Birmingham. The improbable name has a peculiarly Southern genesis: Hastings’ great-great-grandfather belonged to a nineteenth-century epicurean hunt and fish club by the same name on Pawleys Island, South Carolina.

“Hot and Hot meant that the food, which was often fish, would be taken hot out of the oven or off the stove and served hot onto the harvest table,” says Hastings, who started his restaurant in 1995 and soon after received the Robert Mondavi Award for Culinary Excellence. That was followed by accolades such as his 2007 nomination by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef of the South.

Hastings grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and graduated from the Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. After cooking stints in Atlanta with the Ritz-Carlton, in Birmingham at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill, and in Northern California with the Lark Creek Inn, he returned to the South to raise his family and open Hot and Hot. Hastings says that his passion for food — as well as bird hunting and nonstop fishing — came from summers he did not idle away in the South Carolina Lowcountry, near his great-great-grandfather’s club.

As the family’s designated “creek boy,” Hastings would steer his boat to the marshes and creeks to gather oysters, shrimp, and whatever else he could catch in his nets and reel in. “It was an idyllic life, bringing home my catch from the sea. I first developed my love of food there, along the South Carolina coast.”

The Florida Panhandle food-gathering expedition begins with Hastings’ making a beeline for the ocean, where he’s arranged to meet a group of commercial clam fishermen. “Sorry we’re late, Mr. Folks,” Hastings says as he and his guests climb aboard A.D. Folks’ boat anchored near Alligator Point, east of Apalachicola. “That’s okay,” Folks says laconically. “That’s part of life.”

Folks and his buddies are modern-day sharecroppers, but they farm the sea rather than the land. They lease one-and-a-half-acre parcels and farm clams, which they grow from pinhead-sized babies to about the size of a silver dollar. The clams grow on the bay’s bottom at a depth of six to eight feet in plastic nets, reinforced and secured to the bottom to stave off sharks. Other predators include thieves and red tides. It’s a hard living: The Gulf sun leaves the men’s faces lined, and their hands are calloused and cut from working the bay bottom.

Folks’ crew members jump into the water and return with a bushel of the smooth grey-shelled clams, which they shake out onto the boat’s deck. Folks soon coaxes a blue flame from a battered Coleman stove and produces a tub of butter from a cooler. Asked why so many of the bay fishermen are also proficient cooks, Folks laughs. “Their mamas didn’t go out on the boats, so the men had to cook on the water if they wanted to eat.”

After a brief steam bath, the clams pop open and are slathered with butter and a dash of Tabasco. It’s easy to see why Hastings fell in love with these delicate morsels. They are tender, with a mild sweetness. It’s impossible to stop at one.

“I will tell you, you’re tasting something unique that you won’t taste anywhere else,” Hastings says. “This clam is unique in its flavor profile. It’s this lingering richness of the sea.”

Later, Hastings pauses to relax over dinner at the TinBukTu Restaurant at SummerCamp, a beachside housing development by the St. Joe Company, which owns about 800,000 acres along the Forgotten Coast. The company has hired Hastings as a consultant to help design and develop its restaurants.

Hastings values the relationships he’s built with those who snare the seafood, cultivate the herbs, and produce the cheeses he’s gathered on this trip. He’s no poseur to the farm-to-fork food movement; he knows many of his purveyors’ children and their wives. He’s been to their houses for dinner. Hastings sees them almost as an extension of his kitchen staff.

“These people work hard to harvest a local honey or handcraft an artisan-style cheese. They work long hours, in rough conditions in the fields or out on the Gulf,” he says. “They go to great lengths to bring us the best that the land and sea have to offer. Their hard work has a direct impact on the food that we serve.”

Hastings, whose goal in the kitchen, he says, is “to reflect the region, the season, and connect the land to the plate,” says part of the problem is that most Americans are used to eating what they want whenever they want it (think asparagus in December, cantaloupe in March, and pumpkin in June). He says they need to understand the importance of supporting local farmers — many of whom struggle to make a living — by eating what’s grown locally.

“At the end of the day, the goal should be to make sure the American table is a good place to eat,” Hastings says. “Right now, it’s dumbed down so much. There’s too much sugar, too much fat. People in my part of the world are convenience-oriented. In the Southeast we’ve gotten away from the agrarian way of life.”

In a way, Hastings views the Apalachicola basin as the epitome of that way of life — a precious resource filled with gifts from land and sea. What’s special about the area, he says, is that “the quality of everything that I touch here is stunning.”

Next stop on our trip is the seminal 13 Mile Seafood & Trucking, better known as Buddy Ward & Sons, located thirteen miles west of Port St. Joe.

Son Tommy Ward takes his visitors into the concrete-floor chill room where burlap sacks of freshly harvested oysters are stacked on wooden pallets, ready to be shipped to restaurants from Miami to New Orleans. The Apalachicola Bay is an estuary of two hundred and ten square miles, with an average depth ranging between six and nine feet. It supplies 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the nation’s, according to state statistics.

Ward, who was shucking oysters before he started school, says the briny taste of Apalachicola oysters is affected by recent rains, tides, the distance from the river’s mouth, even the direction of the wind.

Ward, who was recognized in 2006 with a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance, takes out a broken blade oyster knife and cracks open a half dozen oysters. “I’m gonna stop talking and let y’all start slurping,” he says as he offers them on the half-shell to his guests.

The oysters are transcendent — briny with a hint of a sea breeze that begs to be savored like a fine Pinot Noir.After we finish tasting, Hastings loads a bushel of Ward’s finest into his cooler and hits the road to meet one of the half dozen restaurateurs in “Apalach” who share his philosophy of supporting local purveyors.

Our meeting is in Apalachicola, at the Avenue Sea Restaurant, which is located inside the turn-of-the-century Gibson Inn, and is co-owned by David Carrier and his wife, Ryanne. In a region better known for all-you-can-eat shrimp plates than fine dining, the Carriers have pioneered the use of local purveyors to craft sensual, big-city meals, which this year earned the Gibson Inn a spot on Gourmet’s list of the world’s thirty-six best food destinations. The magazine’s critic raved about a weekend of “the finest meals I’ve ever eaten on paper tablecloths.”

On a recent fall weeknight, an impromptu dinner party at Avenue Sea turned into a seven-course meal including Apalachicola Bay oysters, butter from Sweet Grass Dairy, and pumpkin from Crescent Moon Organic Farm. The growers and oystermen are listed on the restaurant’s menu.

Hastings and the Carriers are part of a loose fraternity that shares a passion for regional cuisine. They keep tabs on each other, swapping stories about the restaurant business and, in the Carriers’ case, the difficulties of persuading the locals that there’s more on a menu than fried fish.

David Carrier says Apalachicola oysters are superior because their taste is so tied to the tides. If the tide’s coming in, the oysters are salty, he says. If the tide’s going out, the oysters taste more mellow, almost melon-y. Every morning he can look out the window and know how to adjust his seasoning that day.

“The fact that I’m so close to it and see it and feel what’s happening, is that what makes this oyster the best? Maybe,” he says. “It’s a living thing, a living taste.”

On the final night of our food sojourn, Hastings prepares a waterside feast from all the food he has gathered over the past forty-eight hours. He has an iced cooler of jumbo-sized Florida “hoppers,” or Gulf shrimp, and even a spot tail he caught at sunrise. The centerpiece dish is his Forgotten Coast fish stew, a Southern twist on the classic bouillabaisse.

The meal is prepared waterside at the WindMark Beach Club, another St. Joe development east of Port St. Joe. An experienced caterer, Hastings is accustomed to dealing with last-minute contingencies, particularly when dining outdoors. A white-canopied dining table on the beach complete with a bonfire at sunset has to be abandoned because of unexpected swarms of “love bugs.” The good news is they don’t bite, but they are attracted to the color white and are sticking to the light-colored chèvre.

“Hey, it happens,” says Hastings with an easy grin as he roasts oysters on the grill beneath a huge umbrella of mosquito netting. “We’re lucky to have an empty beach club next door... Uncork the wine and let the feast begin.”

 

As appetizers he serves grilled breasts of doves that he shot and plucked, then wrapped in smoked bacon.

“This is what it’s all about, why I’m in this business — to celebrate the bounty of a region like the Forgotten Coast,” Hastings says as he lifts one of Tommy Ward’s 13 Mile oysters and tops it with habanero-cilantro butter.

One of Hastings’ guests of honor is a clam fisherman named Tangle Foot.

“I’ve never been to anything quite like this. It looks like somebody’s wedding on the TV,” Tangle Foot says as he samples goat’s milk cheese crusted with pecans. “It’s nice that these city folks can appreciate what we’re doing down here on the bay. They’re learning what we’ve known all along — that locally produced food is best. But, what it really is is just plain good eating.”

 

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