When I think of South Carolina, I think Palmetto trees and tobacco farms. I don’t think peaches even though South Carolina is the U.S.’s leading producer and shipper of peaches east of the Mississippi. (Georgia, what have you been doing?) I don’t think Red Spider Lilies even though South Carolina was the first place that Red Spider Lilies, (lycoris radiata– one of my most favorite heirloom flowers of all time), were planted in the U.S. thanks to Dr. James Morrow who served as surgeon with Commodore Perry’s expedition to open trade with Japan in 1854. And, it comes as no surprise that I don’t think of one-legged tap dancers even though Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, hailing from Fountain Inn, South Carolina, lost his leg in a cotton gin accident at the age of 12, taught himself to tap dance afterwards, and managed to become quite a famous tapper in spite of his missing limb…
Ok, so granted I was missing a few facts in my South Carolina repertoire. I admit it. But before heading out on my first trip to Myrtle Beach (Myrtle Beach is the center of what is called The Grand Strand, a 60 mile crescent beach stretching from Georgetown to Little River), I was sure I at least had my major Carolina cooking styles covered because, let’s face it, all good vacations are centered around what you’re going to eat. From low country dishes to BBQ with the 4 major sauces, I thought I was ready.
But I wasn’t… I wasn’t thinking calabash. So imagine my bewilderment when we roll into Myrtle Beach and encounter one Calabash seafood sign after another. Every sign trumpeted “Calabash Seafood Here!,” “Calabash-Style Buffet!,” “Best Calabash in Town!” What in the world was calabash? So we googled… And googled. All discussions of calabash seemed either vague or contradictory. It became clear that a simple internet search wasn’t going to cut it. The only responsible thing to do at this point was to find the source of all this calabash business and someone who could tell us firsthand what the fuss was about.
We found ourselves heading 25 miles up the coast to the tiny fishing village of Calabash, NC. Calabash boasts a population of 1,890 and 33, yes 33, seafood restaurants. (That’s 1 restaurant for every 57 people in town.) This quaint self-proclaimed “seafood capital of the world” is characterized by giant, moss-covered live oaks and marshy inlets. Calabash’s fishing fleet, using the Little River Inlet as access to the Atlantic Ocean, docks here daily to sell its fresh catches to the locals, visitors, and restaurants.
We ended up at Waterfront Seafood Shack, (rated #1 of the 33 Calabash dining options on TripAdvisor after only a little less than a year of serving their full menu) where some of the best food this side of Heaven was waiting on us. Comprised of a walk up and several outside tables, Waterfront Seafood Shack is quaint, casual, and right on the dock.
We made our selections of grouper and shrimp, shark, crab cake sandwich, and peel and eat shrimp. All rounded out with regular and sweet potato fries, slaw, and fried corn on the cob. As we waited, from where we sat, we watched little crabs at the water’s edge and eyed the boats. I poked around, taking photographs. When our orders arrived, the cook came out to chat, and we asked him what he could tell us about the Calabash style of cooking that made it so special. He modestly shrugged and said, “We just flour it and fry it.” I had to know more.
- Usually when one thinks of fried food, heavy, greasy food comes to mind. But not calabash, calabash seafood is prepared with a light touch, lightly dusted with a flour and cornmeal mixture and then deep fried. Think breading not batter.
- Calabash seafood means that it is caught and served same day fresh (from the restaurant’s own fishing boats) and in abundance. It is never frozen.
- True calabash is always served casual style, often on paper plates and with plastic forks and often in a family-owned business that has been handed down from one generation to the next.
With every bite I took, I was convinced that Waterfront Seafood Shack’s catch was the best seafood I had ever put in my mouth. Even my son, who has decided he loves crab cakes since I made them for ASD’s Fourth of July special and has tried them everywhere he’s been this summer said, “Sorry Mom, but these are the best crab cakes I’ve ever had.” ??? Ok, well, it’s hard to compete with crab pulled fresh from the Atlantic waters. I did, at least, trump Biloxi and a couple other destinations this summer.
As we finished up, we had the sweet pleasure of spending time with Waterfront Seafood Shack’s owner, Sarina Taylor. Sarina spends every morning making 2 key lime pies and 2 pound cakes from scratch to serve her guests. The Seafood Shack’s specialty is grilled pound cake with a scoop of ice cream. Can I say to die for? Oh, sweet mercies. We are talking a 5 egg, 2 stick of butter real deal pound cake like your grandmother used to make put on the grill until the sugars caramelize forming a crisp layer of toasty goodness. Oh, Serina. What you do to me.
Now, thanks to Serina, her wonderful staff, the relaxed atmosphere of eating right on the dock, and the ridiculously delicious food of Waterfront Seafood Shack (I may never do a cornmeal breading again), when I think of the Carolinas, I don’t think of palmettos, tobacco, or even one legged dancers, I think of calabash… and my mouth waters, and I wonder when I’ll get to go again.