The One True Calabash
There are two towns in North Carolina that will lead you to believe you have died and are seated at the Pearly Plates.
Depending on your religion, you’re either in barbecue heaven (Lexington, NC) or seafood heaven (Calabash, NC). There’s a third heaven for all you fine lovers of livermush (Shelby, NC) - but don’t bother telling anyone, lest you feel inclined to sit through the lip curls and squinched faces.
Unfortunately, Shelby wasn’t on our itinerary this last road trip. I’ll discuss Lexington later on, but let’s talk about Calabash: the myth and the reality.
Myth? Whachu talkin’ bout Willis?
The prevailing myth in the Carolinas is that one can say their cuisine is Calabash without actually being from Calabash. In fact the name, “Calabash”, and the term, “Calabash-style”, has been bandied about by any and everyone serving deep-fried seafood from the shores of the Outer Banks to the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet technically, if it isn’t from the town of Calabash, it isn’t real Calabash seafood.
"Calabash" Restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, SC
Why they do so is obvious: Calabash has the reputation for delivering simple, fresh, and delicious seafood (mainly fried, but offered as boiled or broiled as well) with a distinctive style. For a restaurant to say it serves “Calabash-style” seafood conjures up images of nets teaming with fish just hauled off a boat and ultimately delivered steaming hot to your table. Actually, those boats are quite real in Calabash and are literally down the street from the restaurants.
I’ve mentioned previously my own upbringing as a North Carolinian raised in a food environment that was more pizza than pinto beans; more burgers than barbecue. Like many Southerners of their generation, my parents were products of the last half of the 20th century and none too excited to worship at the feet of tradition. Music-wise, my Dad listened to the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson rather than traditional bluegrass, while my mother distanced herself from her Appalachian roots entirely in the soothing sounds of Chuck Mangione, Anita Baker, and Kenny G.
Despite this, my parents were huge Calabash-style seafood fanatics. Being in the mountains, we often got our fix from the only two fish camps in the area – one in the boonies near Leicester and another sitting on a lone highway between Swannanoa and Black Mountain; neither of which are still in business.
My parents not only loved (still love) seafood, but their love of the ocean and all things associated with it left an indelible mark on me; so much so, I’ve lived by the sea since I left home.
My parents weren’t perfect (neither was I), but they tried. One thing is clear: they done right the minute they set me down in front of that red and white-checked plastic tablecloth covered table and introduced me to the deep-fried holiness of popcorn shrimp, deviled crabs, and hushpuppies.
For me, coming to Calabash was not only a great stop between Charleston and the Wilmington area, but it was also a pilgrimage to a culinary shrine and a tribute to the tastes and loves of my parents. I won’t deny that there was also a quest for authenticity – to say I had been to the source, to experience “the real”, and to judge it for better or worse.
It’s a helluva weight to put on such a small town. It’s an even bigger weight to put on one restaurant in said small town, and yet something tells me the Calabash Seafood Hut, much like Atlas balancing the weight of the sky on his shoulders, is use to such challenges.
We rolled into the town of Calabash shortly before noon, stopping at the first second hand store we saw. After browsing through the dusty old clothes and even dustier old books, we asked the clerk where River Road was. Oddly, she had never heard of it. Two older women who were shopping overheard us and we asked if they were local. When they said yes, we asked them: “where is River Road?” They seemed stumped and asked us where we were going. When we said the Calabash Seafood Hut, it was as if all of a sudden the clouds opened up and a beam of light shone down.
“Oh, just go up to the stop light and turn right! You can’t miss it! We’re getting ready to eat across the street from there.”
So much for Mapquest.
After disembarking from our pork mobile and entering the restaurant, we seem to arrive between the fishing boat captains leaving and the “spending our grandkids’ inheritance” crowd following behind us. Our waitress gave us a moment to look at the menu while she brought out a basket of hushpuppies to start with.
Important Side Note: You know, in the Carolinas someone is always making a big deal over who’s barbecue is the most authentic or tastiest. And yet, consider the lowly hushpuppy.
Hushpuppies vary wildly from region to region, cuisine to cuisine. Sometimes they are perfectly round, sometimes they are oblong, and sometimes they look like a Ferran Adria experiment gone wrong. Some have onions in them, while others do not. Some are savory and some are sweet. Some are mostly cornmeal, some are partially corn meal, and some are mostly flour.
I’ve noticed that hushpuppies served with barbecue tend to consist mainly of corn meal and contain no sugar, while hushpuppies served with seafood tend to have more flour and contain some sugar. These bits of fried bread are dense and soft on the inside while crunchy and slightly sweet on the outside.
If you ask me, that’s a damn delicious combination, dangerous for any diet.
When it came time to order, Bruce and I basically ordered the same platter; a platter loaded with deviled crab, shrimp, oysters, whiting, cole slaw and french fries. Bruce, not an oyster fan, substituted scallops instead.
Our plates of food arrived not long after we placed our order, along with a pitcher each of sweet and unsweet tea. Sitting on the table were bottles of ketchup, cocktail sauce, and Texas Pete hot sauce – not that I needed to use much of anything with seafood this good.
In fact, things weren’t as good as I remembered: they were better. And why shouldn’t they be? Here I was in Calabash having real Calabash seafood and it was rocking my world! The seafood was lightly breaded, crisp, and hot. Each bite was a clean, fresh, succulent, and rich rebuke to all pretenders and challengers to the throne.
The best part of this whole experience was sharing my love of deviled crab with Bruce. Deviled crab was definitely a favorite of mine growing up. I ordered it, along with boiled or fried shrimp, every time my parents and I stopped by the fish camp. Deviled crab is definitely a specialty of this region and I honestly don’t think it’s available in California (though I could be wrong). Naturally, Bruce was hooked.
In general, deviled crab is blue crab that is cooked, stripped of meat, that meat is added to bread crumbs and spices, it is all stuffed back into the shell, and then it is deep fried. Not only a cool presentation, but OOOHH so good.
So good, in fact, one doesn’t have time to truly appreciate its beauty before it’s all gone.
In a way, I’m glad Calabash seafood isn’t available where I live. First of all, watching my weight would be damn near impossible (it’s already difficult having Little Lucca just down the peninsula). Second, I appreciate having to travel for good food. I don’t want everything to be everywhere, and often is the case where some dish I enjoyed in one place (such as a Cuban sandwich) is brought to another (San Francisco), and those who make it never get it right. I just end up disappointed and wanting to travel.
I guess the lesson here is that good food waits for you. It stays in one place, welcoming you to come back for more.
You just have to know where to go.