by Diane Roberts | April 17, 2018

Capital Dame: Food Fight

The historic culinary battles stirred up by Florida lawmakers over key lime pie, mullet pizza and Apalachicola Bay oysters

Illustration by Stephen Lomazzo

In Florida, food is personal.

And political. If I’m in a seafood place and oysters are on the menu, I ask where they’re from. There’s only one right answer: Apalachicola. No Apalachicola, no eat. I feel kind of bad for the server, who thinks she’s got a demented customer at table six, but no Floridian should ever be reduced to consuming oysters from Texas or Louisiana when the best bivalves on this planet come from the sunny, shallow Gulf water fed by the Apalachicola River.

I guess it’s obvious that Floridians can be pretty intense about our grub. Perhaps you recall the scandal in 2006 when investigative reporters from the St. Petersburg Times went undercover to reveal that much of the “grouper” served in restaurants around the state was actually Asian catfish. Or hake. Or some no-name mystery fish entirely lacking proper immigration documents. Fingers were pointed. Hissy fits were pitched. Grouper (and “grouper”) disappeared from menus for months afterward.

And what about the epic 18-year struggle in the legislature to choose an official state pie? Back in 1988, lawmakers from South Florida insisted that Key lime was the obvious choice. Lawmakers from the northern counties, however, countered that pecan pie would be more representative of Florida as a whole. A few legislators, largely from the environs of Plant City, pressed for strawberry, but they were quickly outmaneuvered by the nut and citrus factions. Things got so bitter that legislators postponed the important state pie decision. Then, in 1994, citrus agitators blindsided the nut people and pushed through a resolution declaring Key lime pie “an important symbol of Florida,” escalating the pie fight. Outraged, the Florida Pecan Growers Association retired to lick their wounds.

The pie fight heated up again in 2006, but the Pecanistas lost once again to the Key Limers. Pecans, with their Old South plantation associations and disputed pronunciation (“pee-can” or “pick-ahn”?), just couldn’t compete. The pale gold confection topped with blowtorch-browned meringue triumphed; it was celebrated as representative of Florida’s sun and fun, the perfect accompaniment to a cocktail with a parasol stuck in it. The citrus lobby cited the fruit’s heritage: Like all Florida citrus, the Key lime was brought over by the Spanish almost 500 years ago. They relied on it to stave off scurvy. You can, too.

The Key lime pie is now on the official roster of state stuff, along with the state freshwater fish (largemouth bass), saltwater fish (sailfish), fruit (orange), beverage (orange juice), flower (orange blossom), soil (Myakka fine sand), and shell (horse conch).

Florida’s got a long history of food fights. Consider the mullet, long seen as a fish fit only for poor folks, a bottom feeder best smoked or fried up immediately and served with hush puppies. No one has ever posed for a triumphant dockside photo with his trophy mullet. But mullet has been the subject of surreal zoological disputes and ambitious attempts at rebranding. In 1919, six young men were arrested for fishing out of season in Tampa Bay. They didn’t have any money, but a young lawyer named Pat Whitaker offered to take their case for free. Whitaker read up on mullet and hit on the perfect legal theory: Those boys couldn’t be arrested for catching fish because mullet aren’t fish. Mullet are, in fact, chickens.

Whitaker produced a pile of scientific literature in court. Unlike all other fish, mullet have gizzards. Poultry have gizzards. Ergo, mullet are actually birds. Who knows if the judge was dazzled by Whitaker’s argument or laughing too hard to fool with procedure—anyway, he dismissed the case.

Claude Kirk, the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction and a self-described “tree-shaking son of a bitch,” decided the state was missing out on a great economic opportunity. In the late 1960s, he tried to make canned mullet a thing. I mean, why should tuna get all the love? Kirk rebranded mullet as “lisa,” the Spanish word for the fish. He descended on my school in Tallahassee at lunchtime one day and, in front of a group of photographers, made a great show of eating a dish the cafeteria called “lisa pizza.” My fifth grade comrades and I were appalled. Lisa pizza tasted like the inside of a garbage can and smelled like a week-old pile of fish heads.

Needless to say, canned mullet did not become a “Fresh From Florida” product. But that doesn’t mean we hate mullet. We love mullet—to catch, to eat, especially to throw. At the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package Store on Perdido Key, people get liquored up and try to chuck dead mullet over the Alabama state line. Billed as the “Interstate Mullet Toss & Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party,” anyone, from toddlers to seniors, can compete. Bikini-clad young women vie for the coveted title of “Miss Mullet Toss.” Oceans of beer are consumed. Tons of fish are thrown. If you’re lucky, you will see guys with mullets hurling mullets. Peak Florida.

At the other end of the state, fancy restaurants are getting famous for nouvelle Cuban and Salvadoran-Filipino-Haitian fusion, while beach joints now concoct sushi out of items Old Salts would call “bait.” We’re not just catfish and cheese grits any more. Yet despite the ever-elevated haute-ness of Florida cuisine, some of our most iconic foods are barely food at all. I speak specifically of the orange bubble gum that used to be sold at the Citrus Tower in Clermont. The pieces came in the form of tangerine-colored balls in a mesh bag and smelled every bit as natural as strong detergent. But they were so shiny! So pretty! The coconut patties—plain or pina colada flavor, made by Anastasia Confections, a proud Florida company—were also delish, to say nothing of the Choc-O-Gators. You can still find these tasty, if not particularly nutritious, items in certain emporiums off Interstate 75. But I cherish the orange gum as a true Florida atrocity, sweet yet delivering a note of aluminum foil on the tongue. We’d buy a bag, ride the elevator to the top of the Citrus Tower and gaze out over acres and acres of groves, chewing manically to keep our ears from popping at the mighty 226-foot height.

Now the groves have turned to theme parks and subdivisions, the orange bubble gum is a pale imitation of its chemically dubious former self, and much of the cheerful tackiness of Old Florida has given way to tasteful restraint and culinary “authenticity.”

Not that I have anything against authentic food (though restraint is a different matter entirely). Indeed, the most Florida of Florida foods, the most exquisite and voluptuous, is also the most authentic: the Apalachicola Bay oyster. Nothing—not Key lime pie or smoked mullet dip, conch fritters or stone crabs, pink shrimp or even a fresh Cubano made at a little place on Calle Ocho—compares with the pride of the Gulf of Mexico, the wild, hand-harvested oyster found in the 208 square miles of warm sea between Indian Pass and Yent Bayou. There are nice oysters from other places in the world: Denmark, Galway, the Pacific Northwest, Maine. I have nothing against them. It’s just that the oysters from that little bay at the bottom of that great river are the bomb. The top. The ne plus ultra. If oysters ate oysters, Apalachicolas would be the ones they’d choose.

Floridians have been eating these oysters for a good 10,000 years. Paleo-Indians not only ate them but also used the shells in middens. Spanish conquistadors ate them; the Seminoles and runaway slaves who found refuge from Alabama and Georgia plantations on the Apalachicola River ate them; rich planters in Florida’s cotton belt would send someone in a wagon to buy them by the bushel. I grew up eating them the way other people would eat popcorn. They were numerous and cheap, big, fat and sweet. And they were ours—our own product, beloved all over the world, but special to North Floridians. If you can get your hands on some Apalachicola oysters, eat them. You may not get another chance.

Thanks to the water hogs of Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers’ reluctance to do anything about the problem, the flow of fresh water through the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system down to the Apalachicola keeps decreasing. The oysters—to say nothing of all the other life in this fantastically diverse ecosystem—need fresh water to live. The sweet water from the Apalachicola River mixes with the salt water from the Gulf to make a magical cocktail, perfect for oysters. If the water gets too saline, oyster predators thrive and oysters die.

The fate of the oysters is now in the hands of the United States Supreme Court. That’s how important this critter is. Florida has sued Georgia over the upstream water. A special master ruled in Georgia’s favor, but Apalachicola has one last shot in front of the highest court in the land. In the meantime, I’m going to take every opportunity to get my hands on a dozen raw ones and consume them the way God intended them to be consumed, tasting of the sea and the sunlight, thousands of years of history and epicurean joy in one handsome bivalve. Forget the state pie, the state fruit, the state fish and all that nonsense: We should make the Apalachicola Bay oyster the state icon.