by David Cecelski
A couple weeks ago, I was a guest at the Hatteras fishing community’s
Day at the Docks. It’s a wonderful celebration of that Outer Banks
village’s fishing heritage and living traditions, and I felt deeply
honored to be part of it. Originally founded after hurricane Isabel in
2003 as a day to celebrate the island’s recovery, this very special
event now spans four days every September.
There’s something for everyone—commercial fishing exhibits,
children’s games, seafood cooking demonstrations, educational booths,
music, poetry, and book readings. (I met my new otter friend next to the
pound net display.) Some of the island’s veteran watermen also told
stories about the early days of charter boat fishing one day. And on
another, truly memorable night, local commercial fishermen joined with
fishermen from Louisiana, Alaska, and the Chesapeake Bay to discuss
their industry’s future.
Not surprisingly, the island’s cooks served lots of great seafood: big plates of fresh bluefish, steamed shrimp, fish cakes, scallop cakes, soft-shell crabs, and hot bowls of Hatteras-style clam chowder.
For me the highlight of the festivities was the parade of workboats into Hatteras Harbor. That afternoon I had a cozy berth aboard Ernie Foster’s legendary charter boat Albatross. Ernie guided the Albatross into the harbor at the head of a line of probably 50 or 60 boats. It was a lovely scene to behold, and an experience that I will never forget.
Once the boats filled the harbor, a crowd gathered at the docks for the Blessing of the Fleet. Local ministers said prayers for the safety and wellbeing of the island’s fishermen and their families in the coming year. The event’s organizers had also saved a surprise announcement for that moment: the news that two local young men had just got their commercial fishing licenses, a tremendous symbol of faith in the industry’s future that has become all too rare.
Earlier that day, the festival organizers had held a “chowder cook-off” in a tent next to the docks. Some of the island’s cooks prepared the traditional local chowder, with fresh clams, potatoes, onions, and a little salt pork slow cooked in a clear clam broth. Others made their chowders with cream or tomato-based broths. They were all good. I found the heady aroma of all that chowder a little intoxicating. My first taste also made me realize that my very long summer had ended, that the nights were growing colder, and that the time of year is here when a bowl of hot chowder hits the spot.
A new season is coming for me in other ways, too. I have a new book out that I’m very excited about, but book tours and speaking engagements are going to keep me off North Carolina’s back roads and rural by-ways for a while. I’m starting a number of new projects, too, that are awakening other appetites for adventure in me. The time to say farewell to my food writing here has come.
I have loved every minute of it. I’ve written more than 200 of these blog posts, columns, or short essays since 2007. I hope that you’ve found them entertaining, and maybe sometimes a little helpful. I know I’ve had a ball writing them. It’s been an honor and a great pleasure to work with the wonderful staff, volunteers, and board of directors at the North Carolina Folklife Institute. I especially want to thank Sarah Bryan, Beverly Patterson, Joy Salyers, and Libby Rodenbough.
And to our readers—thank you. Thank you for your warm letters, the gifts of your grandmothers’ recipes, and your suggestions for out-of-the-way little places I might find a rare local delicacy or a special home-cooked meal. Above all, thank you for sharing with me the stories and memories that gave those foods down-to-the-bone meaning in this remarkable place that we call home.
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Next year’s Day at the Docks will be held Thursday to Sunday, September 19-22, in Hatteras Village. For more information, see http://www.dayatthedocks.org.