There’s a long stretch of highway some people call “the road to nowhere”. It starts with a flashing yellow light where you turn left on Highway 24. Turn right and you’re headed to Gainesville which explains the buildings, signs and flags in blue and orange along the way.
After a piece, you might see folks making boiled peanuts along the way, regular flavor and Cajun. Mostly, you’ll see a lot of nothing. Abandoned gas stations, some vacant shanties and rusted Ford trucks that have seen better days will occasionally catch your eye.
Get closer to the water, and almost entering Cedar Key the road is lined with traps for blue crab, still abundant here, although becoming more scarce in our own Tampa Bay. Time stopped here, and it’s like stepping into Florida decades earlier, where the fish are plentiful and seafood restaurants abound.
Not many eat meat, as evidenced in the small, local grocery store. The meat had a tinge, but the shelves were stocked full of local preserves, sauces and dressings all made from Florida stock. Honeybell marmalade, organic blueberry preserves, key lime dressing and more made my bag heavy with local treasures.
The clam phenomenon is a relatively new trade in Cedar Key and in the State, for that matter. Now aquaculture makes farming more than 50 varieties of clams possible, many originally from the northern coastal areas of the country. Size determines their use in dishes. Littlenecks are used in dishes like clam sauce, Cherrystones can be steamed and eaten by hand and the Chowder clams (over 3 inches) are chopped and used for some of the best clam chowders in the world.
In 1991, clam farming in Cedar Key was a brand new enterprise, growing to more than 50 million clams harvested annually by 1997. Part of the demand for Cedar Key “sweets” is a shorter growing time due to the climate. It takes a clam two years to grow to optimum size in New England and only one year in Florida. Many of the diseases that can wipe out a clam farm are just not found in Cedar Key, making harvest numbers much higher. And by the way, they taste great.
If a quiet weekend is right up your alley, it’s a good enough reason to fill up the tank and take that drive across Highway 24. When you see Florida oaks bigger than you’ve ever seen in your life, you are getting close to your destination. On the way, call one of the friendly innkeepers and ask them for a room for the night. Most likely, they’ll tell you to head up to your room when you arrive and settle up in the morning after breakfast.
We did just that this weekend and it was a perfect way to end a hectic week. Heading down to Dock Street is mandatory before 10 pm if you expect to eat dinner. Settling on Steamer’s, we were greeted with friendly folks, unassuming service and food that made me think I was in Cape Cod. It was so fresh and made with care. A guy in a plaid shirt played guitar while he drank some of the locally made craft beers until he admitted it was probably time for him to go home and call it a night.
Steamer’s is the first place I tried Cedar Key’s local clam chowder and I hate to report that I was shocked at how good it was. It had different flavors, herbs and a different consistency than chowders I’ve had up north or here or anywhere else. But there was still Tony’s chowder we had to try; the 3-time world champion of chowder.
The next day, we showed up at Tony’s at high noon, ready for more chowder and wondering if it was all a lot of hype. My first taste of it had me thinking it was good. Was it over the top, though? And that’s the magic of Tony’s chowder (made by Chef Eric, by the way). Tony’s sneaks up on you. It has a little heat that sits in the back of your throat and just warms up that whole mixture in a very subtle way. You’ll just have to try it yourself. Both chowders had incredibly tender, sweet clams.
If you’re spending all your time in the day-to-day rush, you’re spending your time dying. One weekend, pack a bag, cancel everything, get in the car and go. I promise you all the stuff you were supposed to do will still be there when you get back, but at least you can say you lived a little.