by David Cecelski
tub” fish stews are a spring-time tradition along the Neuse River.
When the shad and rockfish swim upriver
to spawn, local fishermen take to the water and cooks get out their biggest
pots. In the old days, that stew pot was often literally a tin wash tub. These
days it’s more likely a big cast iron kettle or an aluminum pot, but the
river’s people still call them “wash tub fish stews.” You’ll find them at church dinners, family
reunions, and other community events, mostly in Lenoir, Pitt, Greene, and Wayne counties.
stumbled onto a fish stew today in Fort
Barnwell, a tiny
community on NC 55. A hand-scrawled “fish stew” sign was on a mailbox in front
of a trailer home. The ruins of the Newbold
School, a historic African-American
school, were just across the road.
walked around back and discovered what turned out to be a fundraiser for a
family reunion that they’re planning for this summer. There was a crowd, too: men
relaxing in lawn chairs and lounging on old stumps, women sitting at picnic
tables in the shade, and lots of children playing games, including a fierce
game of checkers. And everybody was eating fish stew.
Next to a stack of hardwood, a pair
of ladies was tending a fire under a black cast-iron stew pot. One of them, Ms.
Sudie, walked over and greeted me warmly and led me over to the stew. When she
took the lid off the kettle, I thought it was the prettiest stew I’d ever seen.
a very traditional recipe in those parts: they take whole rockfish (or shad—but
this was rockfish), bones and all, and cook it in a tomato broth with plenty of
onions, potatoes, and a little fatback. They season it with black pepper and
crushed red pepper, and they finish off the dish by cracking open whole eggs and
dropping them into the hot broth.
of the fish bones settle to the bottom of the pot, but you always end up with a
few bones in your bowl. The idea is that you just go slow and eat around them.
eggs are an essential fish stew ingredient along the Neuse River.
I usually see the stew with sliced hard-boiled eggs, but Sudie and her mom use raw
eggs so they’ll flavor the broth better.
was the only stranger there, but Sudie and all her friends and family were very
welcoming. The ladies ladled me out a big bowl of stew and I sat at a picnic
table under the trees and enjoyed the lovely spring day, a game of checkers, and
the aroma of the smoke and the stew.
This weekend you can get this kind of fish
stew at the Grifton Shad Festival, which celebrates its 40th year on
April 17 and 18. Grifton is on Contentnea Creek, one of the Neuse’s tributaries,
and the festival is a delight. This year’s festival theme: “Peace, Love, and
Shad.” It includes lots of good food, but also parades, rides, kids’ games, and
a fishing tournament. You can find details, as well as a recipe for the local
Lion Club’s fish stew, at the shad festival’s web site, www.grifton.com/shadfest.html.