Southern Foodways: Fishing Florida's Forgotten Coast

Southern Foodways appears on Fridays as part of our collaboration with the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that "documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South." Dig in!


From left: Florida fishermen Tommy Ward and A. L. Quick

After the long, hot bi-valveless summer, it is time to anticipate and then savor platters filled with glistening briny fresh oysters. Can’t get a table at your favorite seafood place tonight? Then, celebrate the start of oyster season with a virtual trip to Apalachicola, Florida. Meet the men and women who have long worked the water, tonging for oysters, casting nets for shrimp and fish, and cultivating soft-shell crabs on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

People have drawn their livelihoods from the Apalachicola Bay and surrounding waters for generations, but their way of life is changing. These people tell stories of the days when schools of mullet were thick in the water and when tupelo honey was a local find, not a Hollywood star.

Visit with Tommy Ward of the 13 Mile Oyster Company and oysterman, A.L. Quick and his wife, Gloria to learn the love and art of oystering.

TOMMY WARD Born in 1961, Tommy Ward grew up with an appreciation for the place he still calls home. His parents, Buddy and Martha Pearl Ward, raised Tommy in the business out at their seafood house, 13 Mile. The remote location, thirteen miles west of Apalachicola, gave Tommy a hands-on education in his natural surroundings and life on the bay. As a teenager, Tommy left home and spent some time away at college. He also paid his dues working at some other seafood houses in Apalachicola. Eventually, he returned to the family business.

But 13 Mile is not just his business. It’s his heritage. Hurricane Dennis practically destroyed the place in 2005. But with the help of his friends and family, he rebuilt. Today, the freshly painted building that stands along the water’s edge is a monument of sorts. It’s a monument to a place, its past, and to a man. Buddy Ward passed away in April of 2006.

You know, once you get this water in your blood—working on this water—nothing else satisfies you. It's hard to go to a land job and go to work. I mean, could you imagine being out here in this all day, every day, you know, and you get paid for it? This here is paradise right here. It does not get any prettier than this.

A.L. and GLORIA QUICK A. L. “Unk” Quick has been an oysterman all of his life. Originally from Wewahitchka, Florida, his family moved to Eastpoint in 1949. Unk was just nine years old. He quit school at the age of sixteen. He started oystering the very next day. In 1964 he proposed to his wife, Gloria. She started shucking oysters right after they got married. They have worked together ever since. He catches, she shucks. And some days they’ll go out on the bay together. He catches, she culls.

In the off-season they pick up odd jobs and do yard work. Whatever they’re doing, they make a good team. And they know the area inside and out. Unk can speak volumes about the bay and the bounty it holds. But he fears that soon there will be no more oysters. He believes that the bay is being over fished and folks aren’t taking care of it like they should. Years past retirement, Unk and Gloria don’t intend to quit working any time soon. The bay is all they know.

I started oystering when I was seventeen years old. I've been doing it all my life just about. I quit school when I was sixteen and started working the next day after I quit school. To me, it's fun. I mean, I get pleasure out of it, you know. It's hard work and all, but the one thing about oystering [is that] if you own your own rig, you're your own boss.

To learn more about the men and women who work the miles on Florida’s Forgotten Coast, visit Southern Foodways Alliance.