by David Cecelski
This week I visited Engelhard, a quiet little fishing village between Lake Mattamuskeet and the Pamlico Sound. It’s always a good place to forage for fresh seafood. There are no retail fish markets, but the guys at the wholesale fish packing companies are happy to sell you shrimp and fish right off the boat if you don’t mind being patient. “I’ll be honest with you,” one of the packing house’s owners told me. “If we’re busy, we don’t have time to stop and deal with three or four pounds of shrimp.”
Most of the seafood packers are on Far Creek. One, Williams Seafood, is on Hill Street, and a couple others, Engelhard Seafood and Mattamuskeet Seafood, are on Goshen Back Road, on the other side of the creek. You might have to wind your way through piles of crab pots, old nets, and fish boxes, but it’ll be worth it. In the summer, they’ll usually have fresh local shrimp, as well as the fish caught by shrimp boats, like croakers and spots.
Engelhard is also known for its soft-shell crabs. They’re most abundant here in the springtime, when the young blue crabs are growing fast and shedding their shells frequently. At Jennettes Seafood, just up US 264 from Far Creek, Wanda Jennette and I talked about her family’s business one morning when I was in Engelhard. She and her husband, Tom, shed “peeler crabs,” which are blue crabs that will soon lose their hard shells. An experienced eye can tell the hard crab will shed soon by the color of its claw.
Every afternoon, fishermen bring their peeler crabs to the Jennettes. Tom and Wanda and their helpers put the crabs in saltwater holding tanks. They check their holding tanks every 3 hours, 24 hours a day, so they can remove the soft-shell crabs and refrigerate them as soon as they’ve shed their shells. Demand for this saltwater delicacy is high, and they truck most of their soft-shells north. If you stop by their peeler shed, though, they’ll be glad to sell you some, fresh or frozen.
Another good place to buy soft-shell crabs is G and G Soft Shells. This little business is on Swamp Road, just outside Engelhard. Turn left at the company’s sign and follow the dirt drive past a double-wide mobile home. There’s no office for retail sales, but the peeler holding tanks are inside an old, corrugated tin building beside a crop field. You’ll usually find somebody who can help you there.
Other good things in Engelhard: there are two local restaurants, Martelle’s, known locally for its barbecue and seafood, and the Big Trout Marina Café, a wonderful little joint that serves fresh, local seafood and country-style side dishes like butterbeans, rutabagas, and black-eye peas. Also, in June and July, you can get bags of Sweet Mattamuskeet Onions, grown onWilson and Debbie Daughtry’s farm on Airport Road, 5 miles east of town. (Check out www.alligatorrivergrowers.com.) It’s one of the few North Carolina farms that raises sweet onions. You can also find Tracy Helton’s local honey at Chris’s Red & White Grocery and at the Far Creek Gas & Grill. Known locally as the “Bee Lady,” Helton lives in Wanchese, up the road in Dare County, but gets some of her honey from hives around Engelhard and markets her “Outer Banks Bees” honey products there.