A culinary roadshow highlights the iconic — and imperiled — Apalachicola oyster
Words by T.S. Strickland | Photos by Steven Gray
On a brisk, sunny afternoon in January, Jim Denevan stood beside a fifty-foot mound of shells, meditatively sucking an oyster.
Just a moment before, he had been trying to explain why he had devoted the prior sixteen years of his life to the culinary roadshow known as Outstanding in the Field and what this pursuit had to do with the plight of oystermen like Tommy Ward of Apalachicola, Florida, whose mound of shells was shading Denevan from the midday sun.
Before he could articulate his thoughts, Denevan was derailed by a server bearing a platter of oysters baked on the half shell with collard greens, cornbread crumble, and andouille cream. He slurped one down and grunted approvingly before tossing the shell onto the mound.
Standing there in a white cowboy hat and dark aviator glasses, Denevan looked like a slightly taller and slightly stoned version of Bruce Willis. It was a fitting image for a man who has played so many roles in life.
Denevan—a hometown surfing legend in his native Santa Cruz—left the States to model in Milan in the 1980s before returning and becoming a chef. By the ’90s, he felt stifled in the kitchen and took to scrawling hieroglyphics in the California sand—think geometric compositions that were so large they had to be photographed from an airplane and meticulous enough to inspire extraterrestrial speculation.
Even this iconoclastic pursuit wasn’t enough for Denevan, though, and by the end of the decade, while still working as a chef, he began hatching a new idea.
Denevan grew up picking fruit in his older brother’s organic orchard in California. Munching apples and pears in the redwoods helped him appreciate how place—as much as taste, texture, or smell—could affect the experience of eating.
In the 1990s, as Denevan was growing increasingly restless, the farm-to-table movement was gaining momentum, and he was attuned to the changing climate. “People were starting to have the names of farms on menus,” Denevan said. “Farmers’ gardens were starting to be more popular. So there was this sort of growing interest, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, I want to be part of this changing culture of people just wanting to be closer to where their food is from and know about it and know the people who are behind it.’”
But tweaking menus wasn’t going to be enough for Denevan. He wanted to deconstruct the entire notion of the restaurant, taking chefs—and patrons—directly to the sources of their food. At the time, this was considered radical. “It was an unheard-of concept,” Denevan said.
Time has proved its appeal, though. Today, Denevan and his crew travel the countryside, staging scores of elaborate communal feasts each year. Over the last decade and a half, they have served nearly seventy thousand guests in farm fields and orchards, on beaches and mountaintops, and in barns and greenhouses from coast to coast and in nine different countries.
At each location, they invite regional chefs to prepare dishes made with local food—often sourced from the very farm where the table is set—and local producers to share their stories. Diners sit together at a long table arranged with the same obsessive attention to detail with which Denevan etches his giant sand drawings. The whole performance, he said, is orchestrated to inspire connections, bringing people closer to each other, their food, those who produce it, and the environment that sustains it.
As a chef, Denevan said this model inspires greater passion and creativity, which leads to better food. But it’s more than that. “It goes beyond the good food and the good wine,” he explained. “It brings connection to where people live and spend their days. It’s not so much a philosophical point, but people can see it right in front of them. It brings you closer to nature—food is nature, and if we understand it, we understand ourselves and our communities and maybe care a little bit more.”
A COMMUNITY AND AN ICON IN PERIL
While Denevan rhapsodized about food and interconnectedness, the sun inched its way toward the horizon over Saint Vincent Sound, and guests arrived in droves for the Outstanding in the Field dinner event. By four in the afternoon, about 150 people were sipping beer from Pensacola Bay Brewery, sampling hors d’oeuvres, and milling about the farm, oyster shells clattering and crunching underfoot.
On this particular evening, Denevan had brought his culinary caravan to 13 Mile Oyster Farm, where Pensacola chef Irv Miller of Jackson’s Steakhouse prepared a gourmet feast of Gulf Coast proportions.
The menu included beer-battered scamp with creamy yellow grits and tartar sauce; boiled shrimp with creamer potatoes and sweet corn; slow-roasted pork belly with fried oysters; cane-pickled mustard seed “caviar” glaze and “gumbo greens”; and bourbon and honey pecan squares with ganache, caramel sauce, and homemade marshmallow brûlée with cinnamon graham crackers. The main event, though, was the oyster—nude, pit-roasted, baked, fried—invariably delicious.
If the menu sounds intriguing, the story behind it is equally compelling.
The Ward farm is located about thirteen miles outside Apalachicola, a picturesque town with a population of 2,200 perched on the knuckle of Florida’s panhandle. The settlement, located halfway between Panama City and Tallahassee, is a tranquil, friendly place steeped in maritime tradition and one of the few remaining relics of Old Florida.
For well over a century, the townspeople have hauled their living from the sea. Apalachicola Bay, sheltered from the Gulf of Mexico by a series of barrier islands, is one of the healthiest and most productive in the nation. On any given day, one can take a stroll along the waterfront and watch fishermen hauling their catches of grouper, flounder, or shrimp. The lifeblood of the town, though, is the same thing that drew so many to the Ward farm on a cool, January day.
Apalachicola oysters have long been revered as among the very best—savored with a dollop of horseradish or a spritz of hot sauce in restaurants from Chicago to New Orleans. Historically, the town has produced about 10 percent of the oysters consumed in the United States and 90 percent of those consumed in Florida. However, increasingly, they are in danger of becoming just a memory.
That doesn’t sit well with Miller, the chef, who has spent the last three decades in Gulf Coast kitchens and developed a deep love for the briny bivalves. “The oyster is the iconic, emblematic food of the Panhandle,” he said. “It’s just so important to make sure it doesn’t go away.”
Miller first became aware of the oysters’ plight a couple years ago, while doing preliminary research for a forthcoming book about Northwest Florida food culture. Determined to learn more, he began making periodic trips to Apalachicola, networking with oystermen and learning about the challenges facing the fishery. He said the Outstanding in the Field event was, for him, primarily an opportunity to raise awareness. “Does everybody care? Probably not,” he admitted. “But there are some people who do, and we want to foster that.”
A COMPLEX CRISIS
Despite Miller’s passion, the plight of the oysters did not seem to be at the forefront of most attendees’ minds at the Outstanding in the Field dinner. They were an eclectic set that included a young, software-developer couple from Chicago, a bank executive from Tampa whose husband spent a good portion of the evening discussing the tiny house movement, and Craig Pendergrast.
Pendergrast, an environmental lawyer specializing in water rights issues, was probably the exception to the rule. Like a surprising number of the night’s attendees, he hailed from Atlanta—and thus had a special vested interest in the night’s festivities, though he might have been the only one who knew it.
Apalachicola and its famous oysters rely on freshwater from the Apalachicola River to supply the bay with life-sustaining nutrients and prevent it from becoming intolerably salty. The problem is that farmers in Alabama and Georgia, along with the real housewives of sprawling Atlanta, also depend on this freshwater to irrigate their crops and keep their lawns green.
These competing demands have long been a source of intergovernmental tension among the states, which are presently entangled in a decades-long court battle to decide the issue. While concerns about freshwater are nothing new, they have grown increasingly urgent in recent years when drought gripped the Southeast and the 2010 oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast seafood industry.
In the years since the oil spill, researchers have found scant evidence of contamination in the bay. However, in the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, as the spill stretched its black, oily fingers toward Apalachicola, the oystermen didn’t know what to expect.
State regulators loosened existing harvest restrictions, and the locals, fearing the worst, hauled as much as they could from the bay. Now, many believe they took too much. The overharvesting, the droughts, and the thirst of Florida’s neighbors upriver have created a crisis of unprecedented proportions for the people of Apalachicola, threatening their livelihoods, their traditions, and their iconic oysters.
Despite all this, Pendergrast is optimistic. He is a legal consultant to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders, a consortium of industry, agriculture, seafood, and government leaders who are brokering a water management plan that could put an end to the water war. “These folks got frustrated by the political inability of the governors to come up with a deal,” Pendergrast explained while sipping a glass of white wine. “If they can reach a plan by consensus, that should provide both the pressure and the political cover for the governors to be able to say, ‘Okay—if all the people who are interested in this can agree to this, then I can too, and nobody can say I caved.’”
Pendergrast, who was invited to the Outstanding in the Field dinner by a friend, said the group has been meeting quarterly for about four years and was close to finalizing a deal. As for the extent to which Atlanta is to blame for the oystermen’s woes, he said it wasn’t fair to demonize the area’s residents. “Atlanta is a piece of the puzzle,” he admitted, “but I will say it’s not the enemy. The data shows that approximately 5 percent of the water flow that would make it to Apalachicola Bay actually originates at or above Atlanta.”
Pendergrast was cut short by Denevan, who mounted a stack of planks by the water and called for the guests’ attention. After chatting for a moment about Outstanding in the Field, he yielded the floor to Tommy Ward’s son, T.J.
The Wards are seafood royalty in these parts, and T.J. Ward’s blood certainly runs blue. It’s blue like water. Blue like the blood of the horseshoe crabs that swarm the beaches of his beloved bay each spring. Blue like the sadness that comes with watching your way of life teeter on the brink of ruin.
I love this place. We’ve been unloading oysters here since the 1920s, and it’s become more than just a business—it’s our life.
Ward, in a baseball cap and dark sunglasses, took the stand from Denevan. His speech was brief but heartfelt, clashing with the laughter and revelry of the audience, most of whom were already on a first-name basis with the wine pourers who had set up shop by the shucking stations.
“I love this place,” Ward told the crowd. “We’ve been unloading oysters here since the 1920s, and it’s become more than just a business—it’s our life.” At that, a shallow stream of tears leaked from behind his glasses and glinted in the midday sun. Not many people seemed to notice. “Production levels right now are probably the worst they’ve ever been,” he went on, “so, everyone here, enjoy what you’re having because not many people get to.”
And, with that, the feasting commenced.
The next morning, T.J. Ward stood on the docks behind his family’s seafood market in downtown Apalachicola. Engulfed by the shadows of the shrimp trawlers, he seemed more at ease, despite the icy wind at his face. He dipped tobacco—“baseball habit, wish I didn’t have it”—and paused as he spoke to point out the different species of birds that would erupt into squawking from beneath the boats every few minutes. “That’s a kook,” he pointed out, and so on.
He looked out toward the river. “I love the boats,” he said. “When I was a little kid, I didn’t think about business. I didn’t think about making money. I just thought, ‘Oh man, look at these big boats coming in.’ I used to draw pictures of shrimp boats.” He dreamed of being a captain. As he grew older, he hatched other dreams. He studied at the University of West Florida, but he’s put school on the back burner to help his family with the market. When pressed, he’ll admit it’s a sacrifice, though he’s quick to add that he couldn’t see himself anywhere else—too much history. “I’m here to help my dad out, and the industry is something I don’t want to die off.”
A DYING BREED AND A FRAGILE HOPE
As T.J. Ward stood on the docks, his father sat in his office thirteen miles away, staring out a window toward the sound, which was partially obscured by the mountain of shells. The mountain used to be much higher.
“I do about 5 percent of what I used to do five years ago,” Tommy Ward said. “Where I used to unload 150 to 200 bags a day, I now unload 10 to 20.”
That change has affected more than just the Wards. “I used to have a lot of people who depended on us to feed their families, put their kids through school,” he said. Over the last few years, Ward has been forced to eliminate most of those positions. He’s not the only one. Before the oil spill, he said, 13 Mile was one of thirty-five to forty oyster houses in Apalachicola. Five years later, there are ten or fewer.
The decline in the industry, besides its effect on his bottom line, has taken a toll on Ward emotionally. “I had a little bout with cancer,” he confided, “and you know the last few years have been tough. My New Year’s resolution was to go back to work, and since January 1, I’ve been working like I used to work. So I’m gonna work a few more years, I guess—hopefully. It’s been a battle to keep the family tradition alive with everybody trying to knock it down.”
Tradition is strong in Apalachicola, and Ward waxed nostalgic as he recounted the story of 13 Mile. He spoke in measured cadences, and every word seemed to carry great emotional weight. “We’re a dying breed,” he explained, “just like cowboys. It’s—you know—it’s hard work. It’s gotta be in your blood, I guess.” He has it in his blood. A third-generation oysterman, Tommy was born to a woman with the name Martha Pearl. He lost his brother in the 1970s when his boat capsized in a storm.
The bay has brought him prosperity and tragedy, but he wouldn’t forsake it for anything. He is fiercely protective of the water. If an oysterman tries to sell him oysters that have been culled too young, he blacklists him. And he has little patience for careless tourists. “All the people from Atlanta and up the river columns through Alabama and Georgia like to come down here and go trout fishing and red fishing,” he said, “but if you take away all the water and kill the estuary so you don’t have the fish and the shrimp and the oysters and all that, that part of life you enjoy will be destroyed.”
“You’ve got to take care of what takes care of you,” Ward continued, echoing Denevan’s thoughts about connection to the earth. “That peace and quiet or that break away from the office for a week of fishing that you save up for every year—if you don’t take care of it, it’s gonna be gone.”
Ward is optimistic that things won’t come to that. For the first time since the oil spill, he said, the oysters seem to be on the rebound. He is hopeful that, in time, the bay will recover.
“I hope it comes back,” he said. “I’d like to do it one more time.”
This story first appeared in VIE Magazine.