by David Cecelski
One of my favorite fish markets is Tryon Palace Seafood Market in New Bern. I was there just yesterday. This little fish market is located in the shadows of Tryon Palace, the restored residence of one of our colonial governors, and just across an empty lot on the Trent River that used to be the site of the Barbour Boat Works, a shipbuilding company that made wood-hulled mine sweepers during the Second World War—wood hulled so that they would not set off the magnetic triggers on underwater mines.
With the historic district one block north, the downtown business district a block east and one of the state’s oldest public housing projects a block-and-a-half west, this little fish market gets customers from all walks of life. There’s also a senior citizens’ high-rise public housing project downriver a little ways. At lunchtime I like to watch the procession of sons and daughters bringing their mommas to Tryon Palace Seafood’s grill for a fried fish plate or a shrimp burger. I always seem to meet interesting people there.
Ed McGovern, Tryon Palace Seafood’s owner, is a former chart boat captain and commercial fisherman. He deals mainly in the bounty of the Lower Neuse River estuary. Right now he’s got crabs, shrimp, hogfish, croaker, perch, porgy (menhaden) and probably a few things I’ve forgot. He knows his suppliers. If Ed is out of, say, hard crabs, he’ll tell you, “Well, Jim’s checking his traps now. He’ll be here around 2—you want to come back then and see what kind of luck he had??”
The fish market’s fry joint is first class. Farris Slater is Ed’s long-time cook (see photo) and he turns out some real tasty plates and sandwiches—fried fish, shrimp, oysters, scallops, crab cake and soft-shell crab. This time of year, I always get the soft-shell crab sandwich. Nothing costs more than $7.00, and the to-go plates come with Cole slaw, French fries and hushpuppies.
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While you’re in New Bern, you might want to visit a few of my other favorite local places: I love the New Bern Farmers Marketand it’s only a short walk across the railroad tracks from the Tryon Palace Seafood Market. One of my favorite vendors there is an older gentleman who sells homemade chocolate-covered roast pecans and almonds. My momma, my wife and my daughter love them.
My other favorite is the produce booth run by Kelton and Vera Moore (see photo). The couple has a farm in Blounts Creek, in Beaufort County, and I buy their new potatoes and sweet potatoes every chance I get. The farmers market is located at 421 S. Front Street and is open Saturday mornings all year from 7 AM to 1 PM.
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If you’re in New Bern this time of year—June or July—you might also want to drive across the Neuse River bridge and visit Nelson Blueberry Farms, a fixture in the little town of Bridgeton, on NC 17, since 1939. My father used to carry us to their pick-your-own fields when we were children, but they also sell large flats of blueberries for a reasonable price, $20 as of last weekend when I was there.Our elderly neighbors back home drive 30 miles to Nelson’s every summer, pick 70 to 100 pounds and freeze them to eat all year—and they’re not the only ones.
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I also have a soft spot for two little cafes in New Bern. The first is the Cow Café, the little dairy shop owned and operated by the Maola Milk and Ice Cream Co., the local dairy since 1935. Billing itself as the town’s only “four hoof café,’ the café is a little kitschy for me, but my children loved it when they were little. We even celebrated one of my daughter’s birthdays there, probably when she was six or seven years old. The ice cream is good, but the cow-themed décor and souvenirs are over the top. Once located adjacent to the Maola dairy, the café is now downtown: 309 Middle Street. That’s only 2 or 3 blocks from the fish market.
Also in New Bern, I highly recommend The Food Palace Restaurant and Catering, a soul food café at 806 Queen Street. I love the ribs, the greens and pretty much everything else there. The proprietor, Barbara Lee, is a local civic activist, a long-time city councilwoman for the 5thWard, and president of the gospel choir at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. She’s also a great cook.
I’ll never forget how, when my father was dying, he was hospitalized for two or three weeks in New Bern. My mother wouldn’t leave his hospital room, so I’d stop by the Food Palace and pick her up a plate now and then so she wouldn’t have to depend on the hospital cafeteria food to sustain her spirit. I’d walk in and Ms. Lee wouldn’t even ask me what I wanted. She’d just hand me a plate and say, “That’s what your mama needs today”—and she was always right. Then, on the way out the door, she’d always call out, “I’m praying for your daddy, baby.”
I’m telling you right now—a 40-year-old man likes it when you pray for his father. He likes it when you call him “baby” too.
photos by David Cecelski