Gas station oysters (Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 40)

On choices, consequences, and not killing your neighbors

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern storytelling/sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

There are two kinds of people in this world: people who love eating oysters, and people who’ve never had a good oyster. 

Yes, I know the blowback: oysters are gross, oysters taste like phlegm, oysters are sea snot, and so on. Jonathan Swift supposedly once said “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster,” and while I would tack on the addendum “probably while drunk,” it’s nonetheless true, and I’m glad he/she/they did. Because damn, oysters are tasty. 

My favorite combination: saltine cracker, oyster, slather of horseradish, three taps of good hot sauce. This is a crunchy-gooey combination that basically ignites your nasal passages. I’m not saying it’ll cure COVID, but it’s at least as good at cleaning out your skull as anything else on the market. 

Oysters — good oysters, that is — aren’t cheap, and that’s because they require serious manual labor to bring them from the ocean to your plate. There are few gas station oysters, and that’s a very good thing. (Incidentally, “Gas Station Oysters” is the name of my next Americana album. Pre-orders coming soon.) 

One of the finest oyster beds in the country — the world, really — once sat down on the Gulf Coast, in the confluence of fresh and salt waters around the tiny town of Apalachicola. Say that name out loud, listen to it: Apalachicola. It’s one of those melodious Florida Native American names, drawn from the once-indigenous tribe of the same name. Roughly translated, it means “People on the other side” — probably a reference to the nearby river, but hey, aren’t we all on the other side at one time or another?

There was a time when the oyster harvest at Apalachicola was the nation’s richest, supporting hundreds of families. Boats would be out on the bay before dawn, plucking oysters from the seabed with 12-foot-long tongs. Generations of families wielded those tongs, pulling from this tiny bay some of the nation’s freshest, fattest, finest oysters. Little Apalachicola Bay once harvested 90 percent of all Florida’s oysters, and 10 percent of the whole nation’s total.

But then came the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and a lethal drought in 2012. Farmers overharvested the beds after the oil rig explosion, fearing contamination of generations of oysters. (Each takes 2 to 3 years to grow.) The drought upset the delicate chemical balance of the water, leaving it too salty for oysters to flourish. Combine that with the hotly debated use of the river upstream — more on that in a sec — and you’ve got an entire industry that’s been blasted down to the sand. 

Last year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission dealt the oyster community a deathblow, closing down the entire bay for oyster harvesting. No oysters can be drawn from Apalachicola Bay until 2026. It’s a Hail Mary, Apalachicola’s last, best hope for bringing the oyster trade back from the dead. 

Until then, there’s nothing for oystermen in Apalachicola to do but seethe, particularly at the upstream states of Georgia and Alabama. 

Apalachicola-Chattahoochee, say that 10 times fast

Travel the Apalachicola River north from the coast and you’ll wind through Panhandle flatlands, through towns with names like Estiffanulga and Wewahitchka and Ocheesee. It passes under Interstate 10 at the Dewey M. Johnson Bridge, named for a local state senator who served in the Florida Legislature back when they still had brass spittoons beside every desk. 

Eventually, the Apalachicola leads to Lake Seminole, a body of water largely fed by the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee, which starts in the Appalachians, arrives in Florida via a range of dams along the Georgia-Alabama border and a route through the heart of Atlanta — ever-growing, ever-more-thirsty Atlanta. It’s these upstream states, Apalachicola advocates say, that are siphoning and polluting the river that’s a necessary component of the brew that once made Apalach’s oysters so good. 

Since we live in civilized times, Florida isn’t storming northward demanding river justice. (Good thing, too. Alabama and Georgia can whip Florida on the football field, but I’ll take an army of Florida Men and Women over their northern counterparts any day.) Instead, the Sunshine State has taken to the courts … and, to date, the courts have handed Florida its tanned ass. 

Back in April, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Georgia is not using too much of the Chattahoochee’s water relative to what Florida needs. Both states are entitled to the water, lower courts have ruled, but not in a 50-50 split. 

Georgia politicians gloated about “our citizens’ water rights,” exactly the kind of thing politicians say when they want to keep the focus off the heart of the issue and on populist grievance (By God, I’ll be damned to hell if anyone’s gonna infringe on MY water rights!). Georgia government officials pointed to the state’s conservation efforts. The justices leveled some of the blame on acts of God, Who was not available to comment. 

But it’s not just the content of the water that’s led to the total oyster collapse. Critics blamed Florida for over-harvesting Apalachicola Bay, even though it’s tough to blame them in the wake of the Deepwater disaster. Back upstream, the Army Corps of Engineers has redirected the flow of the Apalach and dredged the riverbed ever deeper to allow for ever-larger boats … which keeps the river from spreading beyond its banks and drawing nutrients from surrounding soils. Less water in the soil means fewer trees on the grounds, which means fewer leaves to fall and break down into mulch, which weakens the entire ecosystem … you get the idea. 

This is drifting deep into feature-article territory, and that’s not what you’re here for, so let’s redirect. 

[Reader response interlude: What’s your favorite seafood?]

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A million tiny choices

You can go to Apalachicola today and look out over the waters of the bay, and they shimmer as beautifully as ever. The town has pivoted hard away from oysters and toward tourism, with restaurants and indie bookstores and lovely boutique hotels popping up all over. It’s a wise move, given the circumstance, but it’s a small-scale tragedy for the oyster farmers all the same. 

Look, the collapse of Apalachicola’s oysters probably doesn’t affect you in any meaningful way. If you even like oysters, you can still get them delivered from the East Coast or Texas and served to you on a bed of ice this afternoon, if you want. Unless you’re an aficionado, you’re not going to be able to taste the difference.

But that’s not really the point, is it? The heart of this — the pearl, if you will — is how a million tiny decisions, each seemingly unconnected to the others, have led to the oyster apocalypse. Some were the right move at the time, some were wrong on their face, some paved the road to Apalachicola Bay with the best of intentions.

There’s a metaphor here, and you know what it is. Tiny choices, in the aggregate, have much more impact than giant, sweeping ones. All the little choices you make in a day — what to eat, whether to hit the gym, whether to sneak in a nap, whether to listen to something new or the same-old same-old — they all have downstream consequences, not just for yourself but for everyone around you. 

Make the right choices at the right moments, and eventually you’ve got yourself a (metaphorical) plate of the tastiest oysters ever, spread right before you. Make the wrong ones too many times, you’re on the road to gas station oysters … and that way lies madness. 

Thanks for reading, friends. Make those good choices today so you can make some bad ones later. Catch you next time. 

-Jay


This has been issue #40 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.