Famous seafood and 'off the menu chowder'
By Matthew J. Traum, Ph.D., GLOB Correspondent
EDITOR'S NOTE: Say hello to our new GLOB Correspondent Matthew J. Traum who joins us with a love for unique cusiine in search of epicuran delights while battling his won dietary goblins.
Along the drive down Florida State Highway 24 from Gainesville toward Cedar Key's fresh seafood, old mixes with new, natural with man-made. Train depots transformed into museums dot the highway, which follows the route of Florida's historical Atlantic-to-Gulf railroad. Trains once steamed this route, transporting the naturally-growing lodgepole cedars that anchored this region's economy. The trees are still here, but they grow now in farmed stands; sustainable human-cultivated forests that preserve something of the wild natural stands they replaced.
Clipping along, I see a second, squat roadside sign proclaiming the accolade of my destination, Tony's Seafood: 3-Time National Clam Chowder Champion! Sadly, I am unable to partake of this gastronomic delectamentum, my onetime favorite food. Alas my stomach was robbed five years ago of its ability to digest the bovine dairy anchoring New England style chowder. Surely, I think to myself, the renowned Tony's has something equally delectable to offer; surely it must. As my throat tightens with anxiety at the thought, the manicured forest of perfectly-spaced trees falls away to a 360-degree panorama of bright Gulf waters. It's Cedar Key. I have arrived.
I make a beeline through this sleepy, seaside town of 702 souls to 2nd Street. Tony's Seafood lives on the first floor of a modest two-story wooden-porched square building on the corner. I'm in luck. It's late afternoon, but they're still serving lunch. I take a seat. Nearby, two older men in blue collared polos look like they just flew in from a golf tournament. One is chomping on a fried seafood platter. The other sips on clam chowder from a big bread bowl.
My anxiety builds. The server brings me water with a slice of lemon, but before she can ask my order, my sob story spills out: illness... no dairy... no chowder... other options? She confides in me Tony's secret: it's Cedar Key's locally-farmed clams that win chowder awards. She says I can get a big plate of steamed clams plucked from the Gulf less than a mile from where I sit. I nod. My anxiety fades. Like the farmed cedars that rejuvenated the region's timber industry, clam aquaculture reinvigorated Cedar Key seafood after Florida's 1995 gill net fishing ban. Now these famed farmed clams will reinvigorate me.
My big plate of steamed clams arrives. The sea critters are garnished on a bed of lettuce buttressed by a wedge of lemon and a slice of orange. The clams have been handled delicately by experts: No shells are broken, and all are open, revealing the succulent meat inside. Warm steam rises up smelling slightly salty like an aromatic Gulf breeze in summer. Sitting in its shell, each clam marinates in a reservoir of its own decadent juices. I dig in. Holding each shell in my left hand, I use a fork with my right to free the clam. Each morsel releases easily.
The clams are salty, sweet, and just chewy enough to remind me that hours ago they were in the Gulf. These clams are not the flash-frozen, overnight-thawed rubbery chunks you get at low-end inland seafood dives. There is a touch of umami hinting at mushroom-like aroma. These clams are legit, the real thing. I squeeze lemon juice on the next few. The acidic citrus adds a new, contrasting dimension. Each bite brings the flavor of a salty Gulf breeze, notes of sweet and sour reminiscent of pomegranate, and that nice portobello umami. I savor each clam, but it's over too soon. My lovelies are gone, all in my belly.
That's when I make a happy discovery. Clam juice from the shells has spilled and seeped into the crisp dark green lettuce garnish. Without hesitation, I grab my knife, slice up the deliciously soppy lettuce, and promptly put that away too. As I jam the last leafy green into my face, my server reappears. My cheeks flush hot. Had I just purposely eaten the garnish, losing myself to those savory clam juices? "Don't worry," she tells me; "that happens all the time around here." I slurp down my sweet orange slice as she removes my plate.
I am ecstatic. I found my dairy-free Tony's Clam Chowder stand-in, and it was as decadent as I image the chowder to be. My steamed clam lunch, meant to be an appetizer rather than a meal, was satisfying but not belly-stuffing like a Captain's Platter. Maybe I'll need to make my way back to Tony's in a few hours for dinner. Now, however, I'm off on-foot to the town's park a few blocks distant. I have some time to digest my farmed, fresh clams and squish my toes in the sand before I return to Gainesville along Florida's old railroad trail and visions of manicured farmed forest.