by David Cecelski
I’ve been eating at the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant in Morehead City all my life. My mother’s been eating at the Sanitary almost all her life—and she’s 82. She remembers when the restaurant first opened in 1938. At that time, the little waterfront café had only 12 stools and a two-burner kerosene stove. She had one of her first dates there, a poor fellow who was so nervous that he spilled ketchup all over his dress shirt.
When I was a child, my grandmother often took us to the Sanitary for our birthdays and other special occasions. It was a little ritual. Mr. John Tunnell, who began working there in 1944 and knew everybody, always greeted us at the front door. We sat at one of the tables near the back windows—the Sanitary had 600 seats by then—and the waitresses, clad in all white, brought big pitchers of sweet tea and trays of hushpuppies.
While we waited for our food, we watched the boats go by. Or, when we were very little, we went outside and tossed hushpuppies to the sea gulls.
After we finished eating, we’d stroll down the waterfront and look at the charter boats. We’d walk as far as Capt. Ottis Purifoy’s fish market. I found the fish market enthralling. It had thuggish-looking cats, a loggerhead turtle that occupied a water tank on the sidewalk, and, best of all, murals of lovely, bare-breasted mermaids.
On our way back to the car, we always stopped at Dee Gee’s Books and Gifts and browsed the shelves. My mother’s cousin, D. G. Bell, opened that bookstore back in 1934.
I started taking my children to the Sanitary when they still had to sit in high chairs. We celebrated family birthdays there, lunched with elderly great-aunts there, and entertained out-of-town guests there. We ate lots of fried fish, bowls of clam chowder, and, always, hushpuppies.
I have always thought that the Sanitary’s hushpuppies are the world’s best. They’re just globs of deep-fried cornmeal and buttermilk seasoned with a little salt and sugar, but they’re culinary works of art: long, crisp, and flavorful, every one was a unique size and shape. For generations of beachgoers and locals alike, they define what a hushpuppy is.
Just yesterday, my son and daughter and I picked up a to-go bag of those hushpuppies and made a picnic meal out of them. Mr. John Tunnell, I noticed, was still greeting folks at the front door.
You can find the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant’s hours, menu, and recipe for hushpuppies atwww.sanitaryfishmarket.com. Dee Gee’s Books and Gifts, the state’s oldest independent bookstore, is still on the Morehead City waterfront, too, now located just across the street.