In Old Florida, the lowly oyster comes out of its shell
Words by Adam Rothschild | Photos by Steven Gray
On a brisk, bright Sunday afternoon, several hundred people milled about the grounds of the Barkley House, a 19th-century estate located on the waterfront in the colonial-era seaport of Pensacola.
They sipped Scotch, slurped oysters and puffed on hand-made cigars prepared by the tobacco rollers who’d set up shop on the lawn. Peat & Pearls — a two-day celebration of Scotch and regional, farm-raised oysters sponsored by Glenfiddich and VIE Magazine — was in full swing.
The posh affair — which resembled something between an old Southern garden party and a low-country oyster roast — was just one part of Foo Foo Fest, a two-week cavalcade of culinary and artistic delights that takes place here each November.
The festival — and Peat & Pearls — is evidence of a larger transition that has rocked this sleepy port town in recent years — from a bastion of ‘Old Florida’ to a beacon of the ‘New South.’
Hard Times in Old Florida
Pensacola — perched at the westernmost end of the Sunshine State — has long been known for its sugar-white sand, turquoise water and little else. The beaches of Santa Rosa Island — just over the bay from downtown — are a veritable Mecca for tourists from throughout the Southeast.
The rest of the city, though, has remained solidly Old Florida.
Consider East Pensacola Heights, located just over the bayou from downtown. It was here, in 2015, that archaeologists uncovered the remains of the first multi-year European settlement in American history, founded in 1559 by Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna.
Among their finds: Bushels and bushels of spent oyster shells, a favorite among protein-starved settlers. Locals’ appetite for shellfish hasn’t waned in the intervening centuries.
Case in point: Just a few blocks from the de Luna site is the Marina Oyster Barn. The landmark restaurant has stood on the shore of Bayou Texar since the 1960s. Ever since, residents have bellied up to the bar to order fried mullet, hushpuppies and shellfish by the plateful.
At one time, most of the oysters served here were local, hauled from the bay just a stone’s toss away. That hasn’t been the case in quite some time. It’s a familiar story: Over the last decade, natural disaster, overharvesting and oil spills have ravaged wild reefs and devastated the livelihoods of many of the region’s traditional oystermen.
But, even as wild harvests have plummeted, new aquaculture techniques have been raising hopes for a renaissance. Now, a new breed of oysterman is preserving working waterfronts, restoring coastal environments and reviving regional varietals of oyster that, in many cases, haven’t been seen in decades.
Changing Tastes in the New South
Around here, Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. deserves credit for bringing local oysters back to the table. Owner Don McMahon, a career insurance executive, started the company in 2016 to revive the historic East Bay fishery.
The company harvested its first crop last year — to much fanfare — and will be harvesting a second this spring. Thanks to McMahon, local oysters are once again on the menu at the Oyster Barn — as well as fine dining establishments in the city’s burgeoning urban core.
These days, that core is beginning to look less like Old Florida and more like the New South.
If you want a better glimpse of this newer Pensacola, just look to James Briscione. The young chef grew up just down the road from the Oyster Barn, on a bluff overlooking the bay where McMahon now tends his crop.
In the years since he left home, Briscione has become an accomplished chef, author and Food Network personality. As director of culinary development for the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City, he’s been at the forefront of innovation in the food world.
Now, he and wife Brooke Parkhurst are bringing all that experience back to Pensacola, where they plan to open a new restaurant this year.
“This concept is going to marry the two things we love most,” Briscione said in February, “the classic cuisine of Italy and the culinary traditions of the Gulf Coast.”
The project — a partnership with restaurateur Collier Merrill and developers Quint and Rishy Studer — will be located just one block off Palafox Street, the city’s main commercial artery, which has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in investment over the last few years. The restaurant will be adjacent to a brand-new, $55-million retail and residential development called “Southtowne,” also owned by the Studers.
This sort of investment — and the optimism it inspires — was enough to convince the duo to give up the Big Apple and cast in lots with their hometown.
“Pensacola has evolved from a ‘beach-first’ city into a cultural destination,” Parkhurst said. “We really think what has occurred in our hometown is nothing short of a renaissance.”
This renaissance has as much to do with food as it does steel and concrete — and oysters are as good an indicator of this shift as any.
Half-Shell, ‘Full Circle’
“Oyster culture on the Gulf Coast has always bothered me,” Briscione said. “It was an embarrassment of riches that led to oysters being undervalued … I feel like that attitude is coming full circle. Now, as oyster farms are popping up all over the Gulf Coast, there is a new-found appreciation for the effort, time and passion that goes into getting these oysters to our table.”
This appreciation was on full display at Peat & Pearls, which benefited the oyster shell recycling program run by Keep Pensacola Beautiful. T.S. Strickland — an ad-man turned oyster evangelist — conceived and organized the event.
“The boutique oyster movement has made oysters ‘sexy’ again,” Strickland said in February. “Oysters are a very humble species. They’re filter feeders, and they embody the characteristics of their environment in the same way grapes do.”
Whereas wine aficionados have long talked about “terroir” — a term that denotes the way climate, soil and husbandry impact flavor — it is now common to hear oyster connoisseurs rhapsodizing about “merroir,” the marine equivalent.
“It is the same species of oyster that is grown from Miami to Maine,” Strickland said, “but that oyster will taste completely different from one place to the other, based on the environment in which it was grown and the people who raised it.”
Briscione — whose new book, “The Flavor Matrix,” is all about the science of flavor — agreed.
“Slurping a freshly shucked oyster truly allows you to taste the waters it came from,” he said.
Peat & Pearls featured Scotch tastings by Glenfiddich, cocktails by Pensacola’s Old Hickory Whiskey Bar and oysters from more than a dozen Gulf Coast farms. Each producer was paired with a chef, who was responsible for creating one cooked and one raw preparation.
The format allowed guests to meet and mingle with the farmers, hear their stories and ask them questions. It was a profoundly educational — as well as delicious — experience.
The event culminated the following evening, with a lavish five-course dinner prepared by Briscione and guest chef Frank Taylor, of Pensacola’s Global Grill. The dinner, presented by SOHO Events and Rentals, featured a guided oyster tasting by seafood guru Chris Nelson, of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries.
A Natural Pairing
Allan Roth, a national brand ambassador for Glenfiddich who attended the event, said whiskey and oysters were a natural pairing — though perhaps a novel one for American consumers.
“Scotland has a tremendous amount of coastline relative to its size,” Roth said, “and so the people there are no stranger to oysters. Our whiskey — and its combination of sweetness and light spice — really pairs nicely with the sweetness of a lot of oysters and is complemented by their brininess.”
Beyond this, Roth said he saw an easy affinity between his company’s values and those of the new class of oyster farmers cropping up along America’s coasts.
“We’ve been making Glenfiddich for 130 years now,” Roth said, “and our company has been maintained by the same family all along. I think the fact that a lot of oyster farms are run by families, as well, gives them the same benefits we have: We have this incredible independence that allows us to create single malt in a way that it hadn’t been produced before and explore flavor combinations that hadn’t been explored previously.”
In the same way, Gulf Coast oyster farmers are pushing the boundaries of their craft. One of these producers, Panacea Oyster Co-Op, raises shellfish in the pristine waters of Oyster Bay, near Apalachicola, Florida.
That tiny fishing village, just a few hours east of Pensacola, once supplied 10 percent of all oysters consumed in the United States. However, in the last decade, oil spills, water wars and drought have all but destroyed the wild reefs there.
Rob Olin, CEO of the Co-Op, hopes his company can replace some of what was lost. To do so, they’re taking a page from the playbook of luxury brands like Glenfiddich.
“Glenfiddich is not just a scotch,” Olin said. “It’s a work of art created through generations of development and innovation. It’s the same thing with our oysters. This is a new era for us. We’re experiencing quantum leaps in innovation in how we can elevate the production and quality of this product — from spawning to nursing to rotating to actual harvest.”
The result is a whole new world for luxury consumers.
“The diversity of oysters at Peat & Pearls was something I was really excited about,” Roth said. “As a whiskey drinker, I’m always thrilled to try new types of whiskey, and that applies equally to oysters.”
Strickland said he hoped to see even more farms represented at the next Peat & Pearls, to be held this fall in Pensacola.
“We want to keep elevating the conversation around Gulf oysters,” Strickland said, “They deserve more respect, not just because they’re delicious and fascinating, but because they are important. Oysters are a keystone species, and our entire coastal environment depends on them. If we can get people invested in the story of oysters, we can get them invested in the story of our environment, and if we can convince them to value oysters as more than a commodity, we have a shot at doing some good.”
This story first appeared in VIE Magazine.