by David Cecelski
A little west of Conetoe, in Edgecombe County, there’s a fabulous little country-cooking café called Blackbeards BBQ & C-Food. You can get some of the state’s best wood-cooked barbecue there and a wonderful array of country-style vegetable side dishes. And as good as the ‘cue is, I think I like the daily specials even better. The café’s cooks prepare a host of delicacies that speak to Eastern North Carolina’s culinary heritage, everything from a pig-feet plate to chicken gizzard and rice soup. It’s full of nice little surprises, too. Case in point: Asian broccoli salad was on the specials menu today, next to souse by the pound. I love the place’s cut-against-the-grain flair.
Today I had my first fried herring of the winter there. I had been seeing signs for herring at every little country café that I passed along US 64-Alternate. By the time I got to Conetoe, I had a fierce hankering for the sweet, bony little fish. Blackbeards didn’t disappoint. I had a plate of fried herring, accompanied by sides of collard greens, field peas, and hushpuppies. Everything was just perfect and delicious.
Of course, I knew that the herring weren’t caught locally. For the last 3 years, there’s been a state law against catching river herring anywhere in North Carolina waters. A drastic decline in herring prompted the ban, which hopefully won’t last too long. There’s really been no food more important to the region’s culinary traditions.
For centuries, local people harvested herring with a wild fervor. When the fish swam up local creeks and rivers to spawn, they caught them with everything from bushel baskets to mile-long seines. Well into the 20th century, a barrel of salt herring was a fixture in local pantries.
The arrival of the herring was always an exciting event, too. Schools, businesses, and sometimes courts adjourned for the winter’s first big herring runs. Locals fried the fish good and crispy and ate them, bones and all, right next to the creek where they were caught.
Even now, these mid-winter days stir a hunger for fresh herring. I was feeling it myself on my way to Blackbeards today. Of course, we all know that the fish aren’t local anymore. These days they’re probably imported from New Brunswick or Newfoundland. All the same, this time of year something inside still calls us to go in search of a fried herring supper.
I’d like to make a special shout out to Grant Whitley, who first told me about Blackbeards. A native of Williamston, Grant is a talented, discerning connoisseur of eastern-NC barbecue joints. When he said that Blackbeards was special, I knew it had to be good. You can follow his reviews of eastern NC barbecue and the region’s other culinary wonders atwww.chowhound.com. He writes under the nom-de-plume “Naco” and can be found on Chowhound’s “Southern Board.” Blackbeards, by the way, is right on US 64-Alternate a mile or two west of Conetoe. It’s open Thursdays to Saturdays from 11 AM to 9 PM and on Sundays from 11 AM to 3 PM.