by David Cecelski
While we were on OcracokeIsland, my daughter and I discovered Peggy O’Neal’s fishcakes. They were the breakfast special at the Pony Island Restaurant, a friendly mom-and-pop place that has been serving island locals and visitors since 1959. Everything on the restaurant’s menu is hearty and wholesome, but the really exciting thing to me was those fishcakes: they’re a very traditional Outer Banks dish, but I don’t think that I had ever seen them on a local restaurant’s menu before.
Miss Peggy is the PonyIsland’s elder cook and, judging by her fishcakes, its keeper of the old ways. She grew up on Ocracoke and told me that she had learned to make fishcakes in her mother’s kitchen. She’s been making them for her family all her adult life and, occasionally, for the breakfast crowd at the PonyIsland.
Her recipe is simple and straightforward: she starts with whatever saltwater fish she has at hand. A lot of coastal cooks seem to prefer a mild-tasting white fish, like flounder or sea mullet, when it comes to making fishcakes, though I have to say that my favorite fishcake ingredient is just the opposite—bluefish. But there are no rules here. If you have a lot of leftover fish that has already been baked or broiled—most people use leftover fish to make their fishcakes—that’s a good fish to use.
After the fish is cooked, Miss Peggy flakes the fish off the bone. Then she mixes that flaked fish with boiled white potatoes, diced onion, eggs, salt and pepper, and just enough flour to hold the mixture together. Then she makes patties and fries them until golden brown.
When the Pony Island Restaurant has Miss Peggy’s fishcakes on the breakfast menu—usually on weekends—they’re served with scrambled eggs and toast. It’s a great way to start a day.
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Peggy O’Neal seems to make her fishcakes mostly by feel, not with a written recipe, but I found a similar recipe, without the potatoes, spelled out in Coastal Carolina Cooking (www.uncpress.unc.edu). It comes from Sunshyne Davis, in Wilmington, who notes in the cookbook’s margins that she prefers using grouper for her fish cakes. .
1 pound fish fillets, cooked and flaked
1 medium onion, minced
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. salt and ½ tsp. black pepper
½ cup vegetable oil or shortening.
In a mixing bowl, combine fish flakes, onion, egg, bread crumbs, and seasonings. Mix well. Shape into patties. Panfry in hot oil over medium heat. Brown both sides. Serves 6 to 8.
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My daughter and I did eventually get to PortsmouthIsland, across the inlet from Ocracoke. These photographs of the island are hers.
photos by Vera Cecelski