There is no easy way to explain how a nice Jewish girl fell in love with Florida’s Redneck Riviera. Growing up in the 1970s in Atlanta, I equated the term with Panama City Beach and Destin, two of this country’s spring break juggernauts — with commemorative shot glasses, tattoo parlors, airbrush T-shirts, and Girls Gone Wild to match.
What I didn’t know then was that the area — which stretches along the Gulf of Mexico from Port St. Joe to Pensacola and is also known as the Emerald Coast — is home to miles of truly beautiful, cliché-worthy, unspoiled, white sand beaches. It also contains an impressive range of restaurants, including old-time Florida fried-seafood shacks serving the freshest grouper sandwiches, chic David Rockwell-designed hotel dining rooms offering pristine platters of Apalachicola oysters, and even the occasional bistro with a good wine list, truffle fries, and local shrimp ceviche.
I wouldn’t have known any of this if it weren’t for Joyce Wilson. A tall and tan spitfire with a Brenda Vaccaro voice, Wilson moved from Hawaii to the beach-front community of Watercolor in 2001 and organized the Taste of 30A Food Festival, which celebrates the region’s commitment to "real" food.
When I touched down at the Fort Walton Beach airport for the festival back in 2003, something unexpected happened. I fell for the natural beauty of the Redneck Riviera, and of its main drag, Highway 30A, in particular. Dotted with appealing little towns, most notably Seaside, the famed New-Urbanist community that in 1998 became the set for The Truman Show, 30A turned out to be the chief thoroughfare of a laid-back food paradise.
The food festival was eye-opening: Chris Lily from the legendary Big Bob Gibson’s mini-chain of barbecue restaurants in Decatur, Ala., came down and cooked a whole hog on his "pit-on-wheels"; South Carolina chef Louis Osteen demonstrated his signature shrimp and grits; and cookbook author Deborah Madison spoke at length at the farmers market, extolling the bounty that this area has to offer, including dozens of varieties of tomatoes and lettuces, Satsuma oranges, and, of course, the utterly fresh local fish like pompano, croaker, and flounder.
"What we have here is lost in so many parts of Florida," said Wilson. "It’s really precious and something to be preserved."