The problem with spring in Florida is that summer is sure to follow. We anticipate sand spurs. We know it's going to be hot, buggy and wet. If we're especially unlucky, we'll be threatened by a hurricane.
In the spring, to cheer myself up, to banish thoughts of hurricane shutters, batteries and bottled water, I like to eat oysters.
I will eat them fried, steamed and baked, anytime, anyplace. But most of all I like to eat them raw, with a little lime juice and a smidgen of cocktail sauce on the side. After I've knocked off a dozen or two, I feel like I'm ready to take on a Florida summer, a sand spur and even a cyclone. It's a Florida boy thing.
Oyster restaurants are hardly an endangered species in our state, but my favorite is Indian Pass Raw Bar in the Panhandle's little Gulf County. It's a serious oyster-eating place where I can hunker at the counter, make eye contact with the shucker named "Gator" and say "Hit me." He'll shuck me a dozen oysters that were tonged from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay not last week but that morning.
Visiting the raw bar, a slow-food kind of eatery, is a springtime ritual for me. On Fridays and Saturdays, when the joint is jumping noon and night, I know I'll wait for my food. I bring a companion or a book or chat with a stranger to help pass the time. One day I plan to ask Gator to teach me his oyster-shucking secrets.
Indian Pass Raw Bar has been in the oyster-restaurant business since 1986. Before 1986 it was a retail market known as Indian Pass Seafood Company, which regularly shipped oysters as far as New York's Fulton Fish Market until a hurricane washed it away. During the Depression, the place was a store/gas station/restaurant that housed Gypsie McNeill's tearoom. In 1903, the building was a sundry store for a turpentine company.
Gypsie's grandson, Jim McNeill III, runs Indian Pass Raw Bar now. He's 54, built like a football offensive tackle, and always looks to me as if he just received very bad news in the mail. Anyway, I often catch him glaring at paperwork while sitting at the counter.
"Jimmy Mack," I'm always tempted to say, "can I buy you a dozen?"
• • •
Jimmy Mack, which is what everybody calls him, has never felt the need to advertise his business on television, magazine or billboard. "You almost got to know we're here," he says with a great big Panhandle drawl. "We're a word-of-mouth kind of place."
Indian Pass Raw Bar is halfway between the little towns of Apalachicola and Port St. Joe but well off the main drag, U.S. 98. Jimmy Mack's raw bar is on an especially lonely stretch of two-laner, at the intersection of county roads B-30 and C-30, hidden among a pine forest, swamp and salt marsh. People who punch the address into their GPS — for the record it's 8391 Indian Pass Road — often drive past anyway, probably because the tumbledown restaurant's sign has all but faded away.
Still, Jimmy Mack is always surprised by the folks who walk through the door. He likes to tell the story about the time a tall man dressed in black stopped in to use the toilet.
"Know who that is?" Jimmy whispered to the dazed oyster-eating regulars.
"It's Johnny Cash."
"No, it ain't."
The stranger emerged from the lavatory, ordered lunch and nodded hello in Jimmy Mack's direction.
"You Johnny Cash?" Jimmy Mack asked.
"HELLO," said the stranger, "I'M JOHNNY CASH."
He said it in the exact way he always introduced himself on his television show and onstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Now when Jimmy Mack says he sees a celebrity — Lauren Hutton, the model with the fetching gap in her smile, once stopped by for a bite — nobody dares argue.
• • •
Sometimes Jimmy Mack sees rattlesnakes slithering across the road near the restaurant first thing in the morning. Sometimes he sees a black bear lounging near his Dumpster and licking a crusted-over paper plate.
A few times a year, he catches a wild hog sniffing eagerly among the piles of last night's oysters. If his rifle is handy, he aims and fires, ignites the barbecue grill out front and serves on-the-house pork to go along with the seafood. He could serve possum if he wanted — they're almost always underfoot up here — but why bother?
A nice slice of hog and a half-dozen raw ones is usually more than enough to satisfy Florida appetites.
Jimmy Mack, of course, likes to keep things simple and, if you'll excuse the expression, manly. He serves protein only — never anything green. Shrimp, crabs, oyster and gumbo is pretty much what you're expected to order, except for the beer, wine and soft drinks stored in a cooler. "Help yourself, honey," a blond waitress calls out.
Jimmy Mack sells T-shirts, bread and hot sauce. Deer heads and stuffed fish gaze dolefully from the walls. Jimmy Mack's late dad was a University of Florida graduate, which explains the everything-Gator motif. Even the tile floor is orange and blue.
Sometimes someone feels the need to strum a guitar and sing from a corner on the front porch. Often folks in the audience stand next to the road and drink beer or something stronger smuggled from home. Jimmy Mack's customers, waiting to eat, sometimes argue about politics, fishing, hunting, dogs and religion.
Occasionally Jimmy Mack maneuvers through the crowd to his Chevy pickup and retrieves something of importance. Old mail, invoices, crumpled newspapers, fast-food cups and what looks like fishing tackle cover every inch of floor, dashboard and seat.
The truck's bed, meanwhile, contains a mountain of tools, soda crackers, plastic forks and a rain forest's worth of paper towels. Some Saturdays Jimmy Mack serves 300 dozen oysters. If he were to exhaust his supply of forks and towels the polite Yankee tourists might panic. The Florida folks, of course, would go on sucking oysters from shells and wiping dripping chins on shirt sleeves. It's a Florida boy thing.
• • •
Jimmy Mack's oysters never remind anyone of a bluebird singing sweetly from a fence post. Nor are they beautiful like a cloudless sulphur butterfly sipping nectar from a pink hibiscus. Oysters are brown and green and covered with barnacles. They're uglier than a kidney stone.
An oyster doesn't look alive from the outside; inside it hardly seems ready to break into a Broadway tune either. But that pink, prehistoric slimy mollusk is an animal. And it's a living thing — like your homely second cousin.
On the Florida Panhandle coast, kids start eating raw oysters about the time they give up Zwieback toast. But for most modern folks, the idea of swallowing a live animal is unsettling, if not barbaric.
"He was a bold man that first did eat an oyster," wrote Jonathan Swift in 1738.
In other words, eating a live oyster requires courage, if not a cold bottle of beer and the desire to be nothing like Woody Allen, who famously said, "I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead — not sick or wounded — dead."
What you do is squeeze lime juice over your living oyster. With one of Jimmy Mack's plastic forks, you extract the meat from the open shell and dip it in the horseradish-ketchup sauce.
One, two, three, swallow. Block that thought!
Oysters from Apalachicola Bay are plump and salty and taste of the sea. When fresh, they rarely taste fishy.
That said, folks who suffer from immune disorders should never eat raw oysters. If you're squeamish, or even slightly worried about the remote possibility of contracting Vibrio vulnificus from consuming a live oyster and spending the next day or week in the company of a toilet, play it safe and order a burger, well done. But you'll be missing something.
Hemingway, that manly-man author, ate raw oysters after writing a short story, according to one legend, and I'd like to think he also found time for some shadow boxing or shooting an elephant. Casanova, that randy human billy goat, was said to consume 60 oysters before a romantic tryst.
I can't tell you if oysters are an aphrodisiac. Nor can Jimmy Mack, who, by the way, seems to have about a hundred kids, including at least two or three who labor in his restaurant.
But I can tell you one thing: Swallowing a few dozen raw ones will give you the strength to face another grueling Florida summer. Now excuse me while I walk barefoot into this patch of sand spurs.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.
On the Web: To see the sights and hear the sounds of Indian Pass Raw Bar, go to video.tampabay.com.