The pelican is a peculiar creature. Cedar Key, Florida, a sleepy vestige of Old Florida on the Gulf of Mexico about an hour southwest of Gainesville, is home to the smartest and stupidest pelicans in the world.
The smart pelicans have learned to quietly hover around the fishing docks and wait to be fed, or at least wait until the catch is off the hook before attempting to snatch it. The stupid pelicans snatch at the fish as it is reeled in, swallowing the fish, the hook, and as much fishing line as they can down until they are rescued. Fishermen were then faced with the choice of letting the (stupid) pelicans choke or retrieve the still-intact fish from their throats, unhook it, and then feed it to the poor bastard while the smart pelicans watched.
I was in Cedar Key to try the clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant, which went to New England and won several chowder competitions. This is a tall claim, not unlike going to Bordeaux and promoting your wine, so I had to see for myself. Few things taste as good as they do in hazy childhood memories like the chowder at Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine, slurped up after a long day of digging aimless canal systems in the sands of York Beach (I was a strange child), but memories cannot actually be ladled out in front of you. Bob’s chowder was more of a clam and fish broth than a chowder, where it lacked thickness it gained a buttery richness packed with deliciously briny essence of clam. As someone who adores the flavor of unrestrained clam, I drank it right out of the styrofoam cup with a packet of oyster crackers. Spoons are for wusses.
I was only disappointed that I had not gotten the larger size (and that they didn’t have oyster crackers, but hey, hazy memories). Tony’s believes in a thick, creamy chowder that could hold its own as a meal, with a balanced, well-seasoned clam flavor. While they’re famous for their chowder, their other offerings cannot be overlooked. Florida is a land of shrimp and oysters, with clams more prevalent further north. Cedar Key’s clam farms buck this trend.
The fried shrimp sandwich may seem to be the most simple, pedestrian fare, but there is a wide gulf between greasy mediocrity drenched in tartar sauce and succulent, perfectly fried shrimp that steam when you bite into them and hold onto their breading. It starts with jumbo shrimp that hold their moisture as they are fried just long enough to be cooked, at a temperature high enough that oil does not seep into them. Breading enhances shrimp’s natural sweetness, a flavor note that comes only when they are fresh enough. The breading should be thin, a protective layer of seasoning between the oil and the meat, not a massive wall that envelops and overwhelms the shrimp. This sandwich passed all tests.
The railroad that terminated at Cedar Key is long gone, destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. The Florida Railroad once ran as the first cross-Florida line between Cedar Key and Fernandina Beach, another quaint island beach town on Florida’s other shore that I lived in for the 2012 cycle. The pelicans run the show now.