Three hours north of Pinellas County, at the end of a two lane road just below the mouth of the Suwannee River, Cedar Key farmers make their living. They don’t farm sugar cane or cotton or any of Florida’s other crops.
No, on Cedar Key they do their farming in the Gulf of Mexico. In Cedar Key, they farm clams.
WHAT: Cedar Key has reinvented itself more than once. Railroad magnate and Senator David Yulee dreamed of a railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. Just before the Civil War, Cedar Key, not Tampa Bay, had the starring role in Gulf shipping. During the Civil War the Union overtook the key and shut down the rail line.
Just after the war, Eberhard Faber (of pencil fame) took advantage of then-abundant cedar. Repairs to the railroad allowed for commerce to return to the shipping port, but in 1886 Henry Plant’s railroad made Tampa, not Cedar Key, the major depot. Hurricanes and fire proved too much for the key’s tiny economy and the locals turned to fishing and then, less than 20 years ago, to clams.
Today, Cedar Key exists as part clam village, part tourist center. Although the large boardwalk at the edge of the key lures tourists, some of the best places to shop and eat are towards the center of the island. Coming into town you’re assaulted with signs for fresh produce and clams. Downtown you’ll find an assortment of local art galleries and shops housed in the business district (Dock and 2nd streets). The architecture downtown combines gingerbread with weathered wood and whimsy, painting a colorful collage of a Florida fishing village.
Rinse the sand from the clams and make sure they’re alive. The ones that aren’t closed tight should close if you rap it on the side of your sink. Give it a few moments; if it doesn’t close, don’t eat it. Put as many clams as you can eat on a hot barbecue grill. Putting them hinge-side-up will yield a drier, nuttier clam. Laying them on their sides will give you a grilled, slightly moist clam. They’re done when the shells pop open. Serve with melted butter.
WHY: Cedar Key has no real beach and only one road in and out. As such, it still resembles a part of Florida long left behind by chain stores, high rises, and advertising agencies. People talk about “real Florida” and Cedar Key delivers. Cedar Key has little to offer in terms of white sandy beaches and emerald water, but in terms of a thriving village by the sea and a slice of what true Florida looks like, this town overflows with riches.
WHO: The federal government established a wildlife preserve and the state runs a museum. Locals offer seafood and kayak tours as well as shopping, sightseeing, and an abundance of local color.
WHERE: Just south of the Suwannee River, about 24 miles west of US 19 along State Road 24.
BEST part: Fresh Gulf clams. They’re farmed in the Gulf, not wild, so the traditional rules about when it’s safe to eat them don’t apply.
WORST part: On your way into town you’ll see little more than an historical marker letting you know a town named Rosewood used to thrive just east of Cedar Key. In a horrifying example of man’s inhumanity to man, the thriving village ended with a racial massacre 90 years ago this month. The town never repopulated. Stop by the historical marker and then visit RosewoodFlorida.com for more information.
MAGIC Question: The town, of course is free. Clams can be had for as little as $12 per 100. Throw a cooler in the car and grab as many as you can.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com.