by David Cecelski
One night last week my daughter and I decided last minute that we needed to go to PortsmouthIsland. By dawn the next morning, we were 125 miles down the road at Pam’s Diner, in little Washington. Pam’s has been one of my favorite country cooking places for 25 years and has hardly changed at all: there’s still an enchanting, long, narrow dining room with booths mostly along one wall, simple but hearty fare (my favorite is the country ham and collard greens), and a hardworking crew of friendly, no-nonsense lady cooks and servers. Even the shelf of hot pepper vinegar bottles was the same as ever.
Coffee and biscuit in hand, we left Pam’s and drove into the rising sun. We crossed the PungoRiver marshes and passed the old oyster house at RoseBay. We were planning to catch the 10 AM ferry in Swan Quarter, but we were a little early so we had time to make a couple of brief detours. The first was down a dirt road that leads into the Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge, a great swath of salt marsh and woodlands along the Pamlico Sound. We walked out on the long pier at the end of the road and watched the terns flying upriver and an osprey looking for a fish breakfast.
We still had a little time before we had to get in line at the ferry dock, so we also looked around the Swan Quarter waterfront. I have a lot of memories of that little fishing village a quarter century ago. In those days, the waterfront was crowded with shrimp trawlers, long-haulers, and crab and oyster skiffs. There was a seafood restaurant and motel next to the dock, and a fellow named Ralph Jarvis was still operating an oyster shucking house, one of the last on Pamlico Sound. Several fish dealers operated out of Swan Quarter and, next to the wharf, there was a peeler crab operation where my friend Julia used to help out. Before dawn you could watch the shadows of the workers walking down to the docks to peel shrimp, cut fish, and shuck oysters. Nobody was getting rich, but commercial fishing was still a way of life.
My daughter and I didn’t find much left of that world. We saw a few old trawlers, a couple hundred crab pots next to the dock, and a commercial seafood refrigerator or two that might have still been working, but not much else. Some of the old plank and cinderblock fish houses, oyster shucking sheds, and boatyards that I recognized from when I lived in Swan Quarter were vacant, but most were just gone.
The decline of commercial fishing has taken a toll all over theNorth Carolina coast, but hurricane Isabel was also a culprit in Swan Quarter. In 2003 Isabel pushed a 6-foot wall of water down Main Streetand scoured the waterfront, removing most traces of the fishing industry that used to be there. We saw only a couple signs of life. There was a whimsically-rendered sign announcing a community oyster stew and cheese biscuit supper in Nebraska, east of Swan Quarter, and we found a single handwritten advertisement for oysters scratched on a wall next to the creek: “Local Oysters: 944-8653. Claudia”
To be continued: next up: Miss Peggy’s Fishcakes