Famous NC Flavors
NC Seafood: Gifts of the Gulf Stream
Warmer weather and sunny days are calling you to the Coast, and while you’re treating yourself to a relaxing vacation, treat your tastebuds to some North Carolina seafood. Between the area’s rich estuaries and the nearby Gulf Stream, there are always plenty of delicious dishes to choose from.
The Gulf Stream fills our fishing boats – and our restaurants – with grouper, mahi-mahi, mackerel, wahoo and triggerfish, to name a few. The wee fishing village of Wanchese exports thousands of tons of tuna each year. Don’t worry; we keep enough around to feed hungry tourists at marvelous coastal restaurants.
Thanks to one of the country’s largest and most productive estuarine systems, it is probably our shellfish – soft-shell crabs, littleneck clams, oysters, mussels, and shrimp – for which North Carolina is most famous.
Visitors should be sure to try “peeler” crabs, also called “jimmies.” Jimmies are the large male crabs that measure 6 inches from upper shell tip to tip. A peeler is a crab that will become a soft-shell crab within about 72 hours if handled correctly. You can identify a peeler by the pinkish-red ring on the outer tip of its flipper or back fin.
In the Outer Banks you’ll see wooden shedder beds that stay lighted all night so that the soft-shell crabs there can be gathered as soon as they molt. Some say there is nothing better than a soft-shell crab sandwich. There certainly is nothing edible that looks stranger.
On the southern coast is Calabash, a town whose name has become synonymous with a style of cooking that involves cornmeal battering and frying. Cornmeal also plays a starring role in hush puppies. An important part of the seafood experience in North Carolina, in many restaurants a warm basket of hush puppies will arrive at your table before you can even settle into your seat.
Another popular offering here is the shrimp burger, a lunch favorite. It’s the sauce – almost as arcane as our barbecue – that makes each restaurant’s offering unique.
And if you happen by a fund-raiser by the local church, school or volunteer fire department, you might be lucky enough to catch a Down East clambake, a tradition traced back to coastal Indians who taught early settlers to cook clams and vegetables in the steam of hot stones.
Today’s clambakes usually offer clams, chicken, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, onions, carrots, corn and maybe a few shrimp steamed together in a net bag or cheesecloth and served with melted butter. Forget table manners. Use your fingers. Then come back to the North Carolina Coast often for more gifts of the Gulf Stream.
added: January 4, 2009
updated: January 5, 2009