Every morning, the Apalachicola Bay calls Johnny Richards to work. He drives down to the water’s edge, dips his wooden skiff in the bay, and spends the entire day tonging for oysters. His wife, Janice, stays on land. Her day is spent standing at a stall in a processing house, shucking the sacks of oysters that Johnny brought in the day before. Theirs is the story of generations of people who have made their living from the Apalachciola Bay.
The Apalachicola Bay is a large estuary situated in Florida’s panhandle, about 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee. Fresh water from the Apalachicola River flows into the bay from the north. To the south, barrier islands hold back the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In the space between the islands, though, salt water creeps into fresh, creating a brackish mix—the perfect breeding ground for oysters.
People have sought out Apalachicola Bay oysters for generations. Native Americans settled the area hundreds of years ago and relied heavily upon the bounty of the bay. Eventually, fishermen heard about the bay’s riches and flocked to the area to reap their share. They built small boats out of wood and fashioned 10-foot long tongs to reach into the water and scour the bay’s bottom for bivalves. The early 20th century brought dozens of processing plants to the area, and a booming industry was born. Barrels of oysters were iced and put on railroad cars bound for New York. Oystermen harvested until their boats could hold no more, and shuckers worked daylight to dark, processing the catch.
Today, Johnny and Janice Richards make their living the same way people did generations before them. Married in 1959, they’ve been working the bay together for almost 50 years. For them, the bay offers independence. But it also can be unpredictable. Devastating hurricanes, changing regulations and bay closings due to red tide (a profuse bloom of algae) interrupt their longstanding relationship with the Apalachicola Bay.
Something else threatens their way of life. Escalating real estate values are pushing many locals inland, and some processing houses can’t afford to keep their doors open. Life along Florida’s Forgotten Coast is changing. But oysters still grow in that brackish water, and restaurants across the country still sell them by the dozen. Everyone is still hungry for those little grey gifts from the bay.
By Amy Evans, a historian at the Southern Foodways Alliance in University, Miss.
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