The chowder at Tony's Seafood Restaurant in Cedar Key came to the table with a glossy sheen promising just the right mix of cream, butter and broth. The aroma told me that adding even a few grains of pepper would be defacing a masterpiece.
The clams were large, tender and generously distributed.
Best of all was the aftertaste, which was guilt-free.
My wife, Laura, and I visited Cedar Key, on the coast of Levy County, last week as we do regularly. That means Laura, a vegetarian, must regularly watch me plow through piles of seafood: clams, scallops, grouper and — most delectable to me and stomach-turning to her — soft-shell crab sandwiches, complete with dangling, batter-covered claws.
But I never feel good afterward, and not just because I eat too much.
I know the seas can't withstand this kind of onslaught — not from all 6.6-billion of us, not on a regular basis.
Stocks of grouper and other wild fish have been depleted by overharvesting. Just before leaving for Cedar Key, I read about Chilean salmon farms — major suppliers to U.S. markets — that produce vast plumes of contaminants and have spawned a viral plague called infectious salmon anemia.
So you start to think every bite of seafood carries the taint of natural destruction.
Except for farm-raised clams, said Leslie Sturmer, a University of Florida shellfish aquaculture extension agent in Cedar Key.
Clams filter their nutrients from the water, she said, so they don't need the feed that creates pollution at many fish farms.
The shallow, clean water off Cedar Key was always well-suited for clams, she said; in the interest of preserving the clam industry, the town has made it even cleaner, expanding its sewer system to eliminate septic tanks.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program rates farm-raised clams a "best'' choice for environmentally conscious consumers.
All of which makes Tony's a personal headquarters for sustainable sinfulness and Cedar Key an example — at least on a limited scale — of the right way to confront threats to the ecosystem.
Clam farming in Cedar Key, the story of which has been told many times, grew out of a crisis in Florida: declining fish populations and a 1994 ban on commercial gill netting.
The state promoted aquaculture as an alternative. In the past 14 years, the farms have become central to Cedar Key's economy and atmosphere.
"This is a working waterfront community and has remained so because people are making money,'' Sturmer said.
So, if you worry that global warming, for example, means nothing but deprivation — freezing in the winter, sweltering in the summer, an end to long-distance travel — the clam farms of Cedar Key say it might not have to be that way.
A little bit of cooperation and flexibility, some creativity and intelligent government regulation, and we can enjoy treats such as the best bowl of clam chowder I ever dipped a spoon into — and feel good afterward.
My conscience was clear enough that I had no trouble dozing in an easy chair on the porch of the historic Island Hotel, where we stayed. I could even justify another trip to Annie's Cafe for one more soft-shell crab sandwich.