Fish House Delights

Author and coastal native Bland Simpson wrote this as an introduction to Our Coast magazine. Published by the N.C. Coastal Federation, the magazine highlights the importance of clean water to healthy fisheries. Look for it now and throughout the summer at restaurants, supermarkets and, yes, fish houses along the coast.

An N.C. crabber shows off his soft shell crab harvest. Photo: Sam Bland

Russ Howell in Cedar Point, Carteret County, shows off his live soft shell crab harvest. Photo: Sam Bland

When I was a boy, my mother often sent me on my bicycle to the small, busy fish house on Water Street in Elizabeth City, just across from the Pasquotank River wharf where boats that had been fishing down on Albemarle Sound tied up.  I don’t recall now whether I was showing up in Thomas Crank’s shop for flounder or drum or trout – at the age of eight, it was all simply fish to me and it was all good.  My mother would have already called in her order, so my job was just to pedal a mile and a half from home and pick it up.

Back then, I did not know any more about Mister Crank than what I saw when I walked through the door:  an active older man behind cases of ice and fish, hawking and selling and wrapping them at a rapid clip, with jovial banter to match.  Playing on a then-current radio jingle, every time his door swung open he said brightly:  “What’ll you have?”  Before the customer could name his fish, Mister Crank laughed and quickly shouted out, “Pabst Blue Ribbon!”

I knew I liked his fish-house spirit, and only much later learned how many years he had been in it, and at it. He was carrying on a family tradition of long standing:  Thomas Crank and his father had been “Dealers in Fish, Oysters, Terrapin, etc” since 1896.  A 1915 commercial circular wrote of them:  “These gentlemen are unusually careful in the purchase of their products and handle strictly pure, wholesome and fresh fish, oysters, terrapin, etc. in season. All orders promptly filled and delivered, and at most favorable prices. These gentlemen are natives of Dare County.”

Locals of the North Carolina's central coastline work together in a time-old method of catching mullet. Photo: Sam Bland

Bogue Banks fishermen work together in a traditional method of netting mullet on the beach. Photo: Sam Bland

Though that shop is now a by-gone, as are others to be sure, many fine family establishments still remain up and down the coast, and thrive on selling fresh fish and shellfish that have come from healthy, nearby waters only hours before, and not from halfway around the globe.  The food our North Carolina fish dealers take off the ice and put into our hands not only ties us to the given place and its fishermen, but also to native American people who came here long before us, many centuries to many thousands of years ago, and lived on this same diet – the best in the world.

One of my earliest memories is that of blue crabs steaming away on the stove at my grandmother Simpson’s old cottage in Nags Head. Years later, I arrived at another cottage late one evening after a long hitchhike from Chapel Hill to Kitty Hawk, my younger sisters having gone to bed, my mother brightening my arrival and banishing my road-weariness by firing up a skillet and frying several dozen oysters.  Similarly, much later, my wife Ann’s mother, Pat Kindell, used to greet Ann and me and our three young children, upon our arrival in Beaufort along about suppertime on Friday evenings, with a groaning board of steamed clams and oysters and shrimp, and a crabcake or two (with a little chopped green pepper and onion and maybe a blessed hint of cayenne, too) for each of us.  That was just a start:  Pat also would have on the back burner a pot of perfection:  Core Sound clam chowder, clam juice and a little water its base, full of clams and onions and potatoes and more God-given pepper.  We ate heartily and well, and we ate it all.

Bland waxes about the fishermen and fish houses he knows up and down the N.C. coast, like Neil Smith of Captain Willis Seafood Market in Emerald Isle. Photo: Sam Bland

Bland Simpson has known many fishermen and fish houses up and down the N.C. coast, like Neil Smith of Captain Willis Seafood Market in Emerald Isle. Photo: Sam Bland

Whether we have gotten river catfish or soft-shell crabs from Willy Phillips’s Full Circle Crab Co. in Columbia, or smoked mullet or bluefish from Bill Rice’s Fishtowne in Beaufort, or red snapper from Clyde Phillips Seafood in Swansboro, or more soft crabs from Eddie and Allison Willis’s Mr. Big shop on Harkers Island, or red drum from the working watermen’s Ocracoke Seafood Company out on that grand sandbar, or grouper or flounder from John Haag’s lively fish house on eastern Oak Island, or shrimp from Austin Fish Company up at Nags Head or Garland’s Seafood down in Supply, or a bushel of salty bivalves from the Rose Bay Oyster Co. in Swan Quarter, or rockfish filets from Tom Robinson’s Seafood upstate in Carrboro, or any number of other high-grade, down-home Carolina seafood spots, it only matters that we will have gone to the right places and we will have gotten real, good seafood from real, good folks, and we will be eating better than Louis the Fourteenth, Queen Mary, and J. P. Morgan all put together.  As the vaunted Cajun cook Justin Wilson would emphatically spell it out:  “I ga-ron-tee.”

We might just push a few spots and pompano around the pan, frying them for breakfast, two or three per person, along with toast and fig preserves and scrambled eggs.  We might lay a slab of rockfish or drum in a big baking dish, put olive oil and capers on it, some lemon pepper and garlic powder too, and give it a scant twenty-two minutes, if that, in the oven. We may even scoot a few butterflied jumping mullet onto the grill, for this is one gorgeous fish that absolutely loves smoke.

What’ll we have? I hear the ghost of old Mister Crank still asking. And how will we have it? When it comes to the fish house delights, the fruits of North Carolina’s legendary coastal and sound-country waters, no questions are as joyfully put, or answered.

About the Author

Bland Simpson

Bland Simpson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. With Ann Cary Simpson, he is author of "Into the Sound Country" and "The Inner Islands," and with Scott Taylor he collaborated on "The Coasts of Carolina." He is also a board member of the N.C. Coastal Federation.