A Seafood Town’s Close Connections

Traveling the South, telling stories about this region through the lens of food is the kind of job one daydreams about. Thanks to the SFA’s new podcast, Gravythough, it’s a daydream made reality for me. In the past few weeks, I’ve been from the coast of Florida to the woods of North Carolina, all for stories that will be ready for your ears soon. Gravy launches on November 20th, with new episodes coming out every other Thursday. On the weeks in between, I’ll offer you little snippets of the places and people I’m meeting on the road.

Smokey Parrish on the edge of Apalachicola Bay. Photo by Tina Antolini.
Smokey Parrish on the edge of Apalachicola Bay.

In Smokey Parrish’s office at Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood, there’s a bulletin board that’s a little cultural microcosm of Apalachicola and this rural part of the Florida panhandle. Pinned up on the board are half a dozen photos of friends and relatives showing off deer from hunting trips, right below a sign that reads “Shrimp Pimp,” some medals from the Florida Seafood Festival’s Blessing of the Fleet back in 1999, and posters on the safety protocols for handling shellfish. Smokey’s the third generation of his family to work in the seafood industry, and is about as close to the Ward family– which owns the shrimp house he manages– as you can get without actual blood involved. Smokey and Tommy Ward are only nineteen days apart in age, and were in Cub Scouts together. They went to college together and have been working  ever since at Buddy Ward Seafood, thirty-four years and counting.

Close ties are common in Apalachicola’s seafood industry—and just about everything else about this town. The whole of Franklin County is only about 11,000 people. If you grew up here and stayed, chances are you know everybody else who did too. Those small town dynamics could have either helped or hurt Smokey when he ran for county commissioner the first time. It turns out they helped; he’s serving his third term now. But this is an anxious moment for Apalachicola and Franklin County. The oyster population collapsed back in 2012 for reasons that both scientists and the community are still trying to sort out, and it has yet to rebound. Oysters are a fixture of the economy—and culture—of this place. When their numbers are down, that whole interlinking chain of people here in Franklin County struggle. “It’s not only going to hurt the oystermen,” Smokey says, “it’s going to hurt the people that buy the oysters, distribute the oysters… It’s going to be a shared pain for everybody. Everybody’s going to have to sacrifice.”

Coming up soon, I’ll be telling the story of what’s happening with those oysters on the SFA’s new podcast, Gravy. It’s a story of the surprising connections that are behind the oyster troubles in Apalachicola Bay—connections that lead you hundreds of miles away from the Bay itself, and have wound up being pondered by the Supreme Court.

Stay tuned.