I once ate 48 oysters in a single day. Not in one sitting mind you–more like over the course of 12 hours. Still, you have to admit that’s a lot of oysters. Each time another dozen appeared, I heard line from Cool Hand Luke in my head: “My boy says he can eat 50 eggs, he can eat 50 eggs.” I didn’t quite make it to 50. I may be a glutton, but not for punishment. I was smart enough to stop before I ended up feeling like ol’ Luke did after finishing his feat in the movie.**
The occasion for my oyster bingeing was a couple days in Apalachicola, Florida, for a thinly-veiled research trip with Anthony Licata, Editor-in-Chief of Field & Stream. You can read about the trip, including my pick for Apalachicola’s best oyster bars, in the April issue (“Places,” p. 22).
Before last year’s fact-finding trip to Florida, I only had a mild crush on oysters. I live in the Nebraska Panhandle after all, where it’s hard to find a fresh bivalve. Since tasting them direct from the ocean, however, it’s become a full-blown love affair. I think about them constantly, order them whenever I’m traveling, and have made it a point to learn more about what makes a good oyster, and how taste varies by region and even season.
Though I still have a long list of oysters to get through, I’m enthralled with the ones from Apalachicola. Of the varieties of oysters I’ve tried, those oysters still rank among the best. Most likely my favoritism is the result of eating oysters that had been out of the water for mere hours rather than days. In that sleepy Forgotten Coast town, the only way to get a fresher oyster is to go out on Apalachicola Bay with an oysterman and shuck one plucked from his tongs.
Apalachicolas are true wild oysters–not farmed. They’re the product of the rich alluvial delta of the Apalachicola River dumping into a bay that’s protected from the whims of the ocean by a chain of barrier islands. The result is a fat oyster–some nearly as big as your palm–that’s not too briny and not too sweet, but at that sweet spot where the two create the perfect accompaniment to an ice-cold beer.
The day after our oyster bar crawl, Anthony and I sat on the deck of our hotel overlooking the point where river meets bay. A cold front had put a halt to our plans for a second day of fishing with a guide named Wood Duck, but the weather didn’t stop Apalachicola’s oystermen from their duties. Through the thick fog, we could see their low-slung boats coming in for the day, the front end piled high with oysters.
Most of the bounty was destined for shipment to high-end restaurants around the country where they’d go for as much as $25 per dozen. Luckily for us, more than a few would end up on a tray in front of Anthony and me later that afternoon. Our cost? Eight bucks for a dozen. And ultimately, that is why Apalachicolas are my pick for the best oyster around.