“Ma’am, what’s your preferred rice?” the woman on the other end of the phone call asked? Confused by the question, my food-centric mind drifted to forbidden black rice or jasmine rice, my two favorites. I asked her to repeat the question. After all, my call was to schedule COVID-19 tests for David and myself. Why would rice matter? Third attempt to clarify the question, she asks, “Are you Caucasian or black?” OK, she’s asking about our race, not rice.
I may be a native southerner, but deep south cotton mouth is thicker than my ears are used to. “Bald peanuts” are boiled peanuts, and you pick up “ersters” and “shrump” from local seafood shacks. That’s life here in the Florida’s Panhandle known as “the Forgotten Coast,” where we are “rat now’ (a.k.a. right now). Apalachicola, Eastpoint and St. George’s Island are hours from resort development and crowded beaches further west on the Emerald Coast, and locals want it to stay that way. “Don’t tell people about us,” they write in a private Facebook group.
Well, sorry folks, but we like to share stories about interesting places and support local businesses. We happen to have a mutual passion for oysters. Here in Oyster City (a.k.a. Apalachicola) we enjoy a daily dozen slurp washed down with a cold Oyster City Brewing Company “Mangrove” IPA in the afternoons. (and recently Paumanok Chenin Blanc)!
This week on The Connected Table LIVE we visited with Jeff Tilley, co-owner with his son, Reid Tilley, of Oyster Boss in Sopchoppy, Florida. Oyster Boss sells to restaurants, and the Sopchoppy retail outlet caters to drop ins and now has a growing ecommerce business launched during the pandemic. www.oysterboss.com
Apalachicola oysters have long been prized by bivalve fans, from chefs to consumers, but Tilley shared with us the challenges facing the industry as a result in changes in the water quality, resource mismanagement and the global sea level rise, among other reasons. Most are the result of human intervention. Pollution, runoff and waste disposal are all taking a toll on Florida’s coastal water system. Climate change is also a factor. The area has been impacted by drought and by Hurricane Michael, a category five that slammed the Panhandle in 2018. Much of the eye hit further west around Mexico Beach and Panama City, but we still saw some storm damage in Port St. Joe.
Last year The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to shut down oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay through 2025, severely impacting an industry crucial to this region’s economy. Apalachicola Bay historically produced 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s supply. Many restaurants rely on farmed oysters from Florida and Texas, although you can still find wild-caught from other regions of Florida.
Oyster Boss sources its farmed oysters from Alligator Point in Franklin County, where the water has a higher salinity resulting in a buttery, mild, salty oyster. Further south in northwest central Florida near Yankeetown (Levy County) Oyster Boss sources wild -caught oysters, that are plump, succulent and briney. Tilley brought us bags of both to sample, gave us a lesson on shucking and provided us with some education on the reproductive system of oysters.
Tilley is also a red mullet fan. These fish like to jump in the water, although we still have not tasted. He started the Facebook group, Wet Net Mullet Group, now with 12,000 members. “There is a lot of seafood power in this group,” he shared.
Shucking prowess is akin to having good knife skills. And the right knife. Tilley uses a knife called “Toadfish” which Oyster Boss sells. You need a sturdy grip and a glove. Find the “lip” of the oyster, insert the blade and start moving it back and forth until the shell starts to open slightly. Then, insert deeper. It can take some arm muscle and definitely nimble wrist action.
If you love pristine places to visit, care about sustainable aquaculture and are oyster lovers like we are, you’ll enjoy our conversation with Jeff Tilley. Listen here:
and share this link with friends: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/209-the-connected-table-live-27073513/episode/fla-gulf-coast-oyster-boss-jeff-77121731/