Book excerpt: Seafood Lovers Florida by Bruce Hunt

Editor's note: In "Seafood Lover’s Florida,'' Tampa Author Bruce Hunt’s 10th book on Florida travel and history, readers will crisscross the state visiting seafood places from mom-and-pop fish camps to fine dining establishments, and meet the people who make the places special. Read an excerpt below.

You are never far from fresh seafood in Florida. With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, the most landlocked spot in Florida is still less than 90 miles from the sea. With 1,200 miles of sea coastline, Florida ranks second only to Alaska. Add to that our inland water: Florida has more than 30,000 lakes covering 4,400 square miles, and 11,000 linear miles of rivers and streams. The largest lake, Okeechobee, covers 730 square miles. The longest river, the St. Johns, travels 273 miles. So it is easy to see why seafood rules on both the Florida restaurant scene and Floridian’s home dining tables. There’s nothing like fresh-caught Florida grouper, snapper or hogfish. Our Gulf pink and deep-water royal red shrimp are the envy of the world. And Florida’s spiny lobster, stone crab claws, bay scallops and Apalachicola oysters are almost sweet enough to qualify as desserts.

In Seafood Lover’s Florida, we will take a journey to seek out and sample the vast variety of choices in Florida’s most iconic category of foods, in some of its most iconic places. It’s a journey that begins at the state’s far northwest edge and meanders all the way down to its southernmost tip. This book is not just about seafood, but also about seafood “places.” For me, the place: the location, ambiance and history, is almost as important as the food. Notice I said “almost” because food always trumps atmosphere. If the food’s no good, all the atmosphere in the world won’t save it.

I'm no restaurant snob though. I’m actually happiest walking into a joint with a screened porch and fish-cleaning tables out back. I’m particularly keen on hunting down places that are well off the beaten path: local mom-and-pop dives with “Florida flavor” food. Some of Florida’s best seafood comes from these less-pretentious establishments: raw bars, crab shacks and fish houses, places like: Snook Haven on the Myakka River near Venice, Goodrich Seafood on Mosquito Lagoon in Oak Hill, Eddie Teach’s Oyster Bar on St. George Island, and Alabama Jack’s, on a barge next to the Card Sound Bridge in that brackish netherland between Miami and the Keys. The emphasis isn’t on haute cuisine here, but on simple and fresh. Many have a close relationship with local fishing fleets, and some even have their own boats, so they are often your best bet for dining on something that was swimming around in the ocean that morning. And here’s one of Florida’s best seafood-seekers secret tips: Sometimes there are great chefs in these places too.

But Seafood Lover’s Florida doesn’t ignore the “wear-a-tie-and-make-a-reservation” restaurants. Florida has plenty that serve spectacularly good seafood. Okay. I don’t really know of any Florida restaurants where you are actually required to wear a tie, but we do have some outstanding upscale joints, and so I’ve included them too, places like Norman’s in Orlando, Oyster Catchers in Tampa, Bud & Alley’s in Seaside, and Louie’s Backyard in Key West.

I think most everyone would agree that it's possible to have a great passion for music, and yet not be able to play an instrument or carry a tune. I feel like the same might be true for food. I am ardently passionate about good food and yet admittedly I am a lousy cook. But I love food. I love the science behind preparing food, and I am in awe of the genius that it takes to extract enticing variations in flavor. In my opinion the great chefs deserve a place alongside the great composers, and Florida has attracted some of the greatest. Accordingly, you will find here, interspersed among descriptions of 180 restaurants and markets, a few interviews with some of these geniuses, like Harold Russell from Backfin Blue Café in Gulfport and Justin Timineri, Official State of Florida Culinary Ambassador. With its great abundance and variety of food, Florida has attracted the most inventive and talented to prepare it.

It’s difficult to appreciate how special something is when you’ve had it your whole life. I grew up on Spanish and Cuban food. To me it wasn’t “Latin food.” It was just food. I was in college before I figured out that picadillo wasn’t a Thanksgiving staple everywhere. Florida’s history has always been about the collision of cultures. Long before the term “fusion” became part of the modern food-world lexicon, Floridians were creating dishes that blended cultural styles. As a result Florida-style seafood reflects many influences: Spanish, Cuban, Bahamian, Greek, Puerto Rican and Italian, to name only a few. But Florida’s seafood history dates back even further.

If you go back far enough, you’ll find that most food preparation and cooking styles were born out of necessity, not out of an attempt to make it tasty. Spices, marinades and smoking were all originally ways to preserve food (in a time when there was no refrigeration), not to flavor it. These techniques pre-date the arrival of European explorers, but were widely practiced by Florida’s original inhabitants. Today some of those same techniques are as popular as ever and vital components to the art of Florida seafood cooking.

I am looking at a night photograph of Florida taken from an orbiting satellite, vividly displaying the concentration of light, and therefore the population, along the coastlines. But it was this way long before satellites, and long before electricity. Throughout human existence we have chosen to settle along coasts, oddly enough right on the fringe of an environment that is so absolutely hostile to us. Why are we so attached to the sea? Perhaps it is because the sea has always been such a generous, seemingly endless, supplier of sustenance. And now that attachment is simply in our DNA. I’ve lived my entire life on coastal Florida. And as much as I love the majesty of mountains and canyons, if I’m away from the coast for too long I begin to feel claustrophobic.

Those early Florida inhabitants: Calusas, Timucuans, Tocobagans and the like, were avid consumers of seafood. They hollowed out logs into long canoes to travel along the coast, up rivers and across lakes to catch fish and collect shellfish. Our craving for seafood has continued to grow ever since and today we are more passionate about it than ever. My hope is that Seafood Lover’s Florida will guide you to the freshest, the tastiest, and the best seafood Florida has to offer. So toss it in your glove box and go explore.

Seafood Lover’s Florida was published by Globe Pequot Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.