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Weekender: Northern Gulf Coast, Florida

Frédéric Lagrange

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

LOCAL FLAVOR

HALF-SHELL HOUNDS
We're late for a date with an oysterman and all he can say is, "Y'all need to get a couple of sticks." Sticks?

Saltine cracker sticks, he means. The stores in Apalachicola stock millions of Saltines, by the carton and by the single pack (which he calls "sticks"), knowing that oystering fools like us will need them when we get out on that blue bay and crack open a live one. My friend Ellen, a Chicago native, warns me that she's not eager to taste anything that's slippery and still quivering with life. I grew up on Florida's Gulf Coast but never got crazy about oysters either. But we figure we'll sample one out of respect for our captain, a third-generation Eastpointer named Fred Register, whose brown eyes light up when he talks about oysters.

Besides the tongs we need to pry the oysters from their beds, Register packs a culling iron (a metal rod for knocking the oysters apart), several croaker sacks, and a five-gallon plastic bucket with the bottom cut out. You put a sack in the bucket, making it a "bagging can," Register explains. When the bucket is full of oysters, you pull out the sack, throw it in the cooler, and start on another sack.

The three of us pile into Register's 24-foot boat, which he generally uses for commercial trips but sometimes takes out on private excursions for first-timers like us. As we sail out, Apalachicola Bay spreads wide beyond the bow like a benediction, a bowl of bluish shallows tufted with tiny whitecaps warmed by the panhandle sun. Anchoring at a local bar (oyster bar, that is) we can hear the soft cadence of clacking tongs. The bar bobs with the boats of a few dozen oysterers, come to tong the bottom in earnest.

The first time I try the tongs I come up empty-handed. Their 12-foot wooden poles are heavy and unwieldy, and I can't get a good grip on the muddy bottom. Register encourages me to let the water carry the weight of the poles. When Ellen takes a stab at it, she pulls up three scissorbill oysters. They glisten pearly silver in the sunlight and embody everything titillating about the sea: salt, new life, the vast, ineffable unknown.

Suddenly, I can't wait a second longer. I grab a shucking knife, put on a glove, and pry open an oyster (I never said my father didn't teach me proper shucking). Not even bothering with a Saltine, I simply put the shell to my lips and suck. The muscle is luscious—firm and soft, sweet and salty, all at the same time. I grab another, then another, until Register says it's only our first bar and maybe we should hold off for an official shore feast.

So I try to be patient, but I can't help myself. Both Ellen and I are eating as fast as we can shuck, abandoning all our reservations about what we'd earlier thought of as slimy mollusks. With or without Saltines—which are gone by now, anyway—each bite is ambrosial.

For private oystering trips, call Fred Register (850/697-4300), or book through Jeanni's Journeys (850/927-3259). Half-day charters are $225 for up to six people.

RULES FOR EATING RAW OYSTERS
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, if an oyster's alive in its shell and has been kept at or below 41 degrees, it's safe to eat. Since you don't know how they've been stored, don't buy oysters from roadside stands. When you go oystering, make sure it's with a licensed oysterman who knows the state-approved waters, and don't eat a freshly plucked mollusk if it's dead. If you have diabetes, a weak immune system, or a chronic liver, stomach, or blood disorder, don't eat raw oysters. They're just as good — sometimes better — when steamed, fried, or baked with garlic butter.

MISS JOY'S PLACE
"Most people who come to St. Marks are lost," says Joy Brown, explaining how errant travelers end up inside her Bo Lynn's Grocery & Meat Market (850 Port Leon Dr., St. Marks; 850/925-6156) to ask for directions. As the first "big" thing you see as you come into town (the Sweet Magnolia B&B and the petroleum plant that precede it are somewhat less inviting), it's the obvious place to stop. Locals simply call it Miss Joy's and claim that not even natives know as much about the Gulf Coast as this elegant immigrant from Georgia.

Brown bought the 1936 grocery from Bo Lynn's widow in 1965. Bo Lynn himself had drowned some years earlier, and now his wife was ailing. "I felt it best to keep the name," Brown says, "out of respect for Mrs. Lynn and for the town." She did install new gas pumps in the late 1970's, but hasn't changed a thing since. Meaning, just as in the old days, you'll have to come inside to pay after you pump your gas, which thrills Miss Joy.

"I have personal contact with all my customers, and that's what makes my job so pleasurable," she says. Her shock of blond hair is swept over to one side, her linen pants are crisp and white, her hands delicate but sure as they display to a shopper an antique butter mold with a country flower design. The antiques section inside the store isn't large (check out the kerosene pump that provided heat in the 1930's); neither are the grocery or hardware sections, where you can find fresh sweet potatoes and cold chocolate milk alongside the gardening gloves.

While Miss Joy tries to stock what locals need in a pinch (the closest standard-sized grocery is 15 miles away), she also aims to "let visitors know what amusements are here in St. Marks." They include the Shields Marina (97 Riverside Dr.; 850/925-6158) and the San Marcos de Apalache State Historic Site (148 Old Fort Rd.; 850/925-6216). This 17th-century fort is set at land's end, a deeply atmospheric spot with wind-ruffled cypress swamps and sabal palms. (Keep an eye out for the occasional moccasin snake when strolling the boardwalk.)

If you're in the mood for smoked mullet, Miss Joy can tell you just the place: Posey's (55 Riverside Dr.; 850/925-6172), a blue-washed clapboard shack whose sign reads home of topless oysters and smoked mullet. The restaurant sits a few paces off the official center of St. Marks, where two roads and two rivers meet, and where lazy-eyed bluetick hounds snooze in the afternoon sun.

CRAB PICKIN'
A sign in Panacea jokes that you can "cea" the whole town in one glance, and it's nearly true. The bridge, two restaurants, a couple of motels, and Mashes Sand Food Store (get your live bait here) are all within eyeshot. What you don't see in plain view are the crab factories.

Ever since the late 1930's, Panacea has been the "blue crab capital of the world," with more than half a million pounds of crabmeat harvested and processed every year. But what makes it the capital isn't merely volume; it's the distinctive palate-altering taste of a Panacea blue crab, which sings with sweetness. The steamed meat is so tender it falls out of the shell in buttery folds.

Stop by My-Way Seafood (1249 Coastal Hwy.; 850/984-0164) and order some freshly picked and steamed crabmeat to be shipped back home ($40 to $60 for overnight delivery of 15 pounds). Rock Landing Seafood (12 Coastal Hwy.; 850/984-0010) sells picked crab as well as whole ones.

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