One of my first jobs was cleaning tables and washing dishes part-time for a seafood restaurant in Sneads Ferry, N.C. The Riverview Café didn’t pay much, but they offered an always-hungry teenager the best bennies package in the world — all the seafood I could eat.
During the summer of 1972, I ate enough fresh fish, shrimp, deviled crab, oysters, scallops and clams to feed the 2nd Marine Division, which was entrenched directly across the New River at Camp Lejeune.
Down the bank from the Riverview was one of many wholesale seafood distributors. Everett Seafood had a fleet of shrimp boats docked around it, which came and went during shrimp season, each delivering their precious cargo then heading back out to get some more. Under a tin-roof shelter on the docks, fishermen’s wives and children lined the sides of long tables onto which shrimp were piled then “headed,” or more precisely, beheaded.
Headed shrimp added to the price for the customer, but it added to the seasonal income of the fishermen. I did my part to support local fishermen by consuming all the shrimp I could get. I continue to support American fishermen by not buying or eating imported shrimp from unsanitary shrimp farms in foreign countries. If it’s not wild shrimp, I’m not interested.
In the Tarheel State, shrimp are usually fried. After working several hours at the restaurant, the aroma of fried shrimp permeated my clothes and my long, 1970s-style hair (and Elvis sideburns). It was a wonderful smell that brings back memories for me every time I get a whiff during visits to Darien.
Carolina fried shrimp are served Calabash-style, which is named for the fishing village of Calabash, located on the north side of the of the North and South Carolina border. Their shrimp usually are smaller than Georgia’s white shrimp. Some recipes claim Calabash shrimp are coated with cornmeal only, no flour. My experience taught me a little flour is indeed added to the cornmeal. Here in Georgia, most restaurants add a little cornmeal to mostly flour, which makes for less breading and lots more shrimp flavor.
I ate the shrimp at the Riverview Café by the pound, along with sea bass or flounder and deviled crab — all for free. No, it wasn’t from somebody’s plate. I didn’t eat scraps. It essentially was leftover seafood after the rush-hour crowds began to thin. I’d also eat fries and Carolina cole slaw, but mostly, it was just seafood, with an emphasis on shrimp.
It wasn’t fresh-out-the-fryer seafood but what otherwise would have been thrown out every few hours when business tapered off. I saved them the trouble and the waste. Grandmama had taught me, “Waste not, want not,” and I hated to see shrimp go to waste.
By summer’s end, I decided shrimp is the king of the shellfish. By the time I left that job for football practice and the start of my senior year in high school, I was tired of fried oysters, scallops and clams. I still eat roasted oysters and love New England-style clam chowder. I love lobster, too, but can’t say I’ve had a lot of it because of its high cost and not being common to Southern waters. I suspect most of the lobster I’ve had was not fresh. Ditto for crawfish.
When I was kid, I caught my own blue crabs using a long string tied to a chicken neck. Mama would boil the crabs I brought home in a large pot then separate the good meat from the parts she said “you ain’t supposed to eat.” Her homemade deviled crab was great but not as good as her fried shrimp.
Over the years, I learned to live without oysters and clams — if I had to. I could even live without crab if you made me. When I discovered crab chowder and especially she-crab soup, it became a lot harder.
I knew I needed to eat fish because it was and still is good for me. I couldn’t live without shrimp — period. It’s too good to give up. My seafood orders have gone from a “captain’s” platter with everything on it to a three-seafood platter to a two-seafood dinner. One of those seafood items has to be shrimp.
I’m a long way now from Sneads Ferry and the Riverview Café, but I still dream about the seafood there. My two favorite local restaurants for shrimp are both found in Darien. I don’t have to name them. As you’re driving through Darien on U.S. 17, just roll down your window. The aroma of frying shrimp will draw you to them.
Email Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.