Neil Smith of Willis Seafood Market in Emerald Isle extended the invitation. I was acquainted with Smith as a customer of the seafood market but got to know him better while writing a story on the mullet men of Salter Path. Proud men, which come the gales of November, are preserving the traditional method of mullet fishing when these fish run thick along the ocean beaches. My wife was in the store picking up some scallops for supper, and as she was about to leave, Smith said “tell Sam to come have lunch with us in Salter Path on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., drive into town, he’ll find us”.
Since 2005, this secret had evaded me. As it turns out, the Salter Path Men’s Club has been preparing a seafood feast every other week during the winter months, typically, November though Easter. On this cool February day, as the mullet nets lay dormant and the skiffs were hibernating under the shelter of ancient live oak trees, I was in on the secret.
Many of the descendants of the abandoned Shackleford Banks whaling and fishing village called Diamond City migrated to Salter Path more than a hundred years ago. The spirit-breaking hurricane of 1899 pretty much destroyed Diamond City leaving the villagers reluctant to carry on in such an exposed location vulnerable to storms. Some chose to settle on Bogue Banks in a thick tangle of maritime forest on the shores of Bogue Sound which is protected by high dunes along the oceanfront. Here, the village of Salter Path and its traditions were born.
Driving slowly through town, I soon saw a cluster of pickup trucks and three men standing close to an open wood fire in a larger grassy area next to the main highway. The men stood with their backs to the wind, which carried the lingering bite of the cold air blowing off the sound. White smoke billowed from the flames and drifted on the breeze, creating a familiar aroma of warmth. I parked my truck and looked to find Smith among the groups of men clustered throughout the lawn. Some were washing oysters, some were setting up tables and others were beginning to cook fish and shrimp. I found Smith, we shook hands but he was really too busy to talk. He then looked into the distance and announced to the men preparing the fryers, “They’ll be here soon.” As if on cue, his forecast became reality as cars and pickup trucks started rolling into a nearby parking area.
As if a moth to a flame, these men were drawn to the glowing red embers that were now roasting a large passel of oysters scattered on a metal grate placed over the fire. I could hear the fryers come to life as lightly battered fish and shrimp began to sizzle while they were lowered into the hot oil. Big serving bowls of homemade coleslaw and baked beans were already prepared and sitting on serving tables. But most intriguing of all was what I had mistaken as pancakes. They said it was cornbread, but I have never seen cornbread look like a flapjack.
A man in a red and black plaid fleece jacket took long, hurried strides across the lawn with his nose pointed skyward. He called out to no one in particular, “I could smell the food from Morehead City”. “You came from Morehead City”? I asked as he breezed past. Without pausing, the words, “Yes, because it’s worth it,” trailed over his shoulder as he continued with a single-minded purpose to get in the serving line before it became too long.
People continued to arrive under the spell of this gastronomical siren and the serving line soon curved like a snake. They came from all corners of Carteret and Onslow counties. Over the years, without any advertising, word of mouth has spread the secret and the number of men that show up for this indulgence has begun to grow. The first lunches drew a modest group of 12, then 25, then 40 to 60. People began to bring friends and coworkers and the crowd would swell to 75, 100, topping out at 130. On this day, I would guess about 80 people would leave replete and satisfied.
The event had the flavor of a reunion as friends renewed acquaintances. Phrases such as, “How long has it been” or “I haven’t seen you in a long time” filled the air along with laughter and good-natured ribbing. As I took pictures of the gathering, one of the fry cooks waved me over and asked, “You’re not from the IRS are you? I don’t want them to see my picture,” which caused an eruption of laughter from those standing within earshot. As I scanned the faces at the gathering, amazingly, I noticed a familiar face, someone I hadn’t seen in 15 years or more. Earlier, feeling like the outsider, it was now me, feeling at home, reconnecting with an old acquaintance.
After I got my plate, I stood back a bit away from the crowd and observed as the line trickled past the serving tables. Then, as the roasting rack was lifted off of the fire, men moved with the grace of lightning as hot steaming oysters tumbled with a thump onto a thick makeshift wooden table. Around the crowded table it was silent, except for the scraping of oyster knives as they pried open the salty bivalves. All the dining tables were full and it was apparent that good food will attract people from all walks of life.
At the head of and behind the serving table, Darryl Marshall was piling generous portions of shrimp on plates and handing it out to the next hungry person in line. Standing near him, and also serving food was Mr. Smith. According to others at the lunch, these two men are the driving force behind the lunches. But when asked, they both modestly deflected any credit and praised the efforts of other people and businesses in the community.
On one of the serving tables was a nondescript box into which everyone was putting their hands. At first I thought people were grabbing napkins out of the box before I realized that they were putting money into the box to pay for their lunch. No one was collecting money, nor was there a sign on the box, everyone just knew to pay. There was no set fee for the lunch, it was pay what you can or pay as much as you want. No one was turned away if they couldn’t pay. It was a gift of the Salter Path Men’s Club. The money that they did collect, you ask? Well, they don’t keep a dime of that. It is used to purchase bicycles that are given to the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, where employees distribute the bikes through Project Christmas Cheer to underprivileged children. Here, a new tradition has been born, one that the town can be proud of thanks to a group of men that love their community. A community described by Salter Path native Lillian Smith Golden years ago.
“If there was even a heaven on earth, it was here. There was wild country on each side of us. We had a church. We had a school. If anybody got sick, they helped out. They had a feeling for each other a love for one another …”
—Lillian Smith Golden, Salter Path Native, 1901-1985
The next lunch is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. today near the Crab Shack Restaurant.
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