Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said the Apalachicola Chocolate Co. offers chocolate-covered oysters. The chocolates resemble oysters but do not contain them.

Old Florida on the Half Shell

By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 7, 2008

It's several degrees hotter than the highest recorded temperature in Hades, and so humid it's like breathing wet cotton. Only air conditioning makes the Southern summer bearable -- air conditioning and seafood. I decide I need to pay homage to Apalachicola, Fla., a place sanctified by both. Apalachicola is the Jerusalem of air conditioning and the Vatican City of oysters.

Apalachicola is a little pearl of a beach town, too, only 80 miles or so from Tallahassee, where I live. I've been driving down here all my life to admire its ornate old houses that look out to where the Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico and its antebellum churches with their Ionic columns and tall, green-shuttered windows. Lately, I've come to appreciate such attractions as restaurants with 15-page wine lists and joints where you can watch your supper get shucked, each bivalve big as a baby's fist and sweet as young love. Yet none of Apalachicola's treasures would seem so enticing if not for John Gorrie's machine.

I walk into the one-room museum; I swear these displays haven't changed since I first came here on a fifth-grade field trip in the late 1960s. There are dioramas of slaves loading cotton onto ships: Antebellum Apalachicola was the third-largest port in the South after New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. There's a display of nets, oyster shells and a moth-eaten stuffed seagull with a bow around its neck. In the middle of the room sits the mother of all air conditioners.

John Gorrie, a Caribbean-born, New York-trained physician, longed to cure yellow fever. We now know that yellow fever, like malaria, is transmitted by mosquitoes, but in 1833 when Gorrie moved to Apalachicola, everybody blamed the noxious miasmas of the subtropical swamps along the South's coasts. Gorrie thought that if you could lower the temperature of the room where a patient lay, it would drive the infection out. He tried hanging bowls of ice from the ceiling, but since ice had to be sent by ship from the North and cost as much as a dollar per pound, that wasn't practical. So Gorrie built a contraption using compressed air to cool salt water, which would, in turn, chill rainwater and make brick-size blocks of ice. The machine here is a replica; the original is in the Smithsonian, along with Gorrie's 1851 patent, but it still inspires awe in anyone who ever had to sleep in an AC-free room in August.

Dan Tonsmeire, an Alabama native who moved to the area 25 years ago, says: "You know the way Vicksburg and places like that have the Pilgrimage to show off their historic sites? We should have something like that celebrating Dr. Gorrie. After all, ice and air conditioning are what make Florida livable."

I'm with him there, God knows. But Tonsmeire spends a lot of his time far from ice and an adjustable thermostat: out in the woods, in the wetlands, on the bay and on the river. He works for Riverkeeper, a private environmental organization dedicated to creating a sense of stewardship toward waterways and their ecosystems. Indeed, Tonsmeire is the riverkeeper for these parts, an expert on the flora, fauna and hydrology of Apalachicola's vast estuary. I found him at the Riverkeeper office-cum-shop on Avenue D, where I took shelter from one of those brief, fierce rains that swoop in from the Gulf. "We've got sturgeon, rare mussels and other extraordinary animals in the river," he says. "Plus herons, osprey, eagles, swallow-tailed kites -- the Apalachicola has the highest biodiversity of any river system in North America."

Tonsmeire has lived in magnificent landscapes in Alaska and Idaho, and worked in other parts of the state, but he cherishes Apalachicola's wildness and authenticity: "There are a lot of places in Florida that would be as pretty as Apalachicola; they're just covered up. People here still make a living from the water," he says. "It's a real place."

That's real as in not Seaside, the "New Urbanist" village about an hour's drive west along Highway 98. Seaside is all about money and leisure; there's no scent of fish heads in the air. Walk along Water Street in Apalachicola, though, and you can watch the shrimp, oysters, crab, mullet, grouper, trout and flounder come in. Once it was cotton going out: thousands and thousands of bales from the plantations of north Florida, Georgia and Alabama, loaded onto ships sailing for the mills of England. Now the old brick cotton warehouses are mostly gone (there's a survivor at Water Street and Avenue F), replaced by seafood packing houses. Most of the catch will be sent out into the world (90 percent of Florida's oysters come from Apalachicola Bay), but some travels only across the street.

Apalachicola is also real in small-town tradition. I buy a copy of the Apalachicola and Carrabelle Times (founded in 1885), and the front-page story is the crowning of the 2008 Miss Florida Seafood Festival, Sara Ward, daughter and granddaughter of famous local oystermen. And speaking of the festival (it takes place annually in early November), it's lunchtime.

Apalachicola is tiny (population 2,350, not counting pelicans), yet it punches above its weight in excellent food. Some local chefs display their artistry in oyster shacks, some in plush Edwardian dining rooms. My favorite is the Owl Cafe, housed in a century-old clapboard building so close to the water you can toss a mullet to it. I get a window table upstairs and begin the struggle with the Owl's overstuffed menu. Crab cakes? Jambalaya? Black grouper? Aw, man. It's got to be the oysters. They're so celebrated around here, so beloved, that people I know from other seafood-rich places (Dublin, San Francisco, Baltimore) won't touch an oyster unless it's an Apalachicola Bay oyster. John T. Edge, Gourmet magazine contributing editor and best-selling author of "Southern Belly," says he remembers standing on the dock of local seafood packer Tommy Ward, watching him separate oysters into piles according to where they were harvested and their relative salinity. He says, "Oysters, like grapes, have their terroir."

I decide on fried oysters and a glass of Viognier. The Owl's wine list has about 250 varieties, many of them stashed in a glass-walled cellar you can visit if you need a double dose of Dr. Gorrie's invention. I could have had raw oysters (it's a myth that you should eat them only in "r" months), but the Owl makes its own tartar sauce.

I resist the waitress's sirenlike recitation of sweet things (creme caramel, mousse cake, pecan pie). If I feel the need for dessert later, maybe I'll try a chocolate oyster from the place on Market Street. Now, this bonbon is not like a turtle, which we all know contains nuts and caramel but not a trace of terrapin flesh. No, I'm talking about an actual oyster, dipped in good Valrhona chocolate. When I asked the man who makes them if he likes chocolate oysters himself, he said, "No. It's the kind of item people come in and buy for other people."

Apalachicola is that rarity in America: a walking town. Not only can you walk anywhere you want to get to, you will want to. It's the best way to see the 100 or so buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the towered and castellated Victorian mansions with their shady yards full of mint-green and rose-pink caladiums, the river cottages and the funky shops and galleries. I amble over to Downtown Books, a small space that nonetheless stocks an astonishing number of the newest novels and nonfiction. There's also a terrific selection of Florida history, politics and ecology, including books on the special ecology of Apalachicola. I buy a new novel by Sherman Alexie and a couple of local cookbooks. The one produced by the Woman's Club of Apalachicola is particularly fine. It's illustrated with color pictures of the town's grand houses, such as cotton merchant Thomas Orman's antebellum pile overlooking the Apalachicola River, and is crammed with recipes for oyster pie, oyster soup, scalloped oysters, oyster and corn bread stew, baked oysters, oyster casserole . . . you get the picture.

I make my way to Richard Bickel's place on Market Street just as another hot rain starts to fall. Bickel is an internationally renowned photojournalist who has worked for National Geographic and the New York Times. After he came to Apalachicola on assignment in 1994, he never left. His gallery is hung with portraits of oystermen and shrimpers, their families, their dogs and their boats. Bickel calls Apalachicola "Florida's last stand: the Old South blended with a working waterfront."

Bickel's pictures are on a heroic scale, giclee prints in silvers, grays and black. There's something almost elegiac about them, too, as if to remind us that Apalachicola's way of life -- the way of life for all those who make a living from the sea -- is under threat. "The shrimpers are having a hard time, what with cheap, pond-raised shrimp flooding the market," Bickel says. "Everyone is struggling with the high price of diesel fuel to run their boats, too."

He might have added that even the famous oyster beds are in peril. The long Southeastern drought combined with Atlanta's building frenzy (suburbs use a lot of water) means that not enough H2O comes down the river system to the Gulf. Unless the bay's delicate cocktail of fresh and salt is mixed just right, the oysters suffer -- the whole ecosystem suffers.

So, carpe diem. The clouds are lifting a little; the sun, pinky-orange and big as a jawbreaker, is slipping down into the Gulf. Time for me to pay a call at the Gibson Inn, a cupolaed and columned edifice built of heart pine and black cypress in 1907. It has an airy lobby done in the grand leather, brass and velvet style of the Edwardian period and a posh restaurant called Avenue Sea. The chef there is an alumnus of California's French Laundry and a passionate locavore, one centered on local provender. He, too, worships the fruits of Apalachicola Bay and, judging from the fresh temperatures in here, the oeuvre of John Gorrie. "It's all of a piece in Apalachicola," Edge says. "Refrigeration got us ice, and ice keeps the oysters nice."

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