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I walk into Boss Oyster Bar in Apalachicola, the little port town at the bottom of the famous river. Boss cuts to the chase, dispensing with ruffles and flourishes, a seafood shack of the old school, a bit scruffy, wind-whipped, with some young salt sitting there with a bushel of bivalves shucking as though the sunrise depended on it. You can sit on the porch over the water, gazing on the source of your food, and order your oysters fried, steamed, baked, or breaded, in stew, in a taco, in a po' boy, festooned with jalapeños, feta, or bacon. You can exercise such options, but why would you not want them as Nature intended—perfectly raw, untouched by anything more than a spritz of fresh lemon or a dot of red sauce? They lie on their shells, silvery, voluptuous, and big as your fist, a little sweet and faintly briny, a taste as sunny as an afternoon in the warm, green shallows of the Gulf.
I know, I know: raw. Think how long it took Americans to entertain the idea of sushi. Even now, some people will stare at the most perfect slice of line-caught yellowfin and call it "bait." It's rare to get an egg yolk in a Caesar salad, and, God knows, some people are terrified of ceviche. And there's no denying that four or five people die every year from eating raw oysters. The offending bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus, can make you very sick, especially if you have liver problems or a compromised immune system. V. vulnificus likes warm water, salty water. I eat my raw oysters when the Gulf is cool, winter and early spring. And I pray for fresh water, for the flow from the north. Everyone in Apalachicola prays for the river to send the revivifying water down from the mountains.
The Apalachicola country is a fiesta of living things: 1,300 species of plants, forty species of amphibians, eighty species of reptiles, the highest density of amphibians and reptiles north of Mexico. Unusual animals such as the West Indian Manatee and the Indiana Bat turn up, along with fifty other kinds of mammals, 131 flavors of fish, 300 kinds of birds, and some of the rarest flora on earth: Torreya trees, Florida yews, Apalachicola rosemary, which only grows in Liberty County, and the Carolina Grass of Parnassus with its gauzy, white, star-shaped flower.
Unlike peninsular Florida, which made a habit of lying underwater for much of its geological history, the north central and northwestern parts of Florida remained higher and drier, with rivers still connected to the North American mainland. Species that would seem to belong in the sharper temperatures of the Appalachians—gopherwood, mountain laurel, Dusky Salamanders—thrive in the steephead streams and ravines. These species moved south during the last Ice Age and never left. The lower Apalachicola is wet prairie and marsh punctuated by pine flatwoods, and along the banks and in the swamps, cypresses as tall as cathedral spires.
Much of the land around the Apalachicola is in public hands; and from the Jackson River to the west, south to the Gulf, and east to Tate's Hell Swamp, it's as close to unspoiled as you'll find in the overstuffed strip-malled and highway-scarred [End Page 8] rest of Florida. Aside from the spectacular biodiversity, the ethereal quiet, and the startling beauty of a hundred iterations of green, the river is a long, slow banquet, a many-coursed feast. I'm not being metaphorical; I'm really talking about food. Bream and catfish up near the Georgia state line, tupelo honey hived on the floodplains east of Wewahitchka, opulent white, brown, and pink shrimp, fat blue crabs, dainty scallops, and fish—pompano, flounder, and mullet—thrive in the rich waters of the bay. Most significantly, gloriously, the oysters. Always oysters. Here is an article of Florida faith: There is no oyster like an Apalachicola Bay oyster. Not in this fallen world. There are other good oysters (really good oysters) from Louisiana, Galway, the...