by David Cecelski
This weekend I was at the Jamesville Herring Festival in Martin County. My wife, son, and a group of friends and I went down there to explore the cypress swamps and to do a little fishing along Devil’s Gut, a wild, remote waterway that flows into the Roanoke River just west of Jamesville. But as soon as we got off the water, we headed into Jamesville for a herring supper.
That little town has been celebrating the springtime spawning runs of herring since 1949. When we got to the festival, we discovered half a dozen church and community groups frying fish and serving dinners. (We were too late for the Herring Parade.) Several local eateries were cooking herring, too, including the venerable Cypress Grill down on the banks of the river.
Some of the herring were fresh, and some were salted. Fresh and salted (or “pickled”) herring have been delicacies along the Roanoke for centuries. At the festival, cooks fried them, bones and all, until they were crispy. They served the fish with stewed white potatoes, Cole slaw, green beans or collard greens, and “bread,” which, when you’re talking about herring, means deep-fried cornbread.
Everything looked good, but the ladies from the local AME Zion church really stole our hearts. When we walked by the church, they had just fried their last batch of herring for the day and were looking to move it. For two dollars, they gave us a handful of the delectable, bony little fish. They also tossed in a ball of fried cornbread nearly as big as my fist. The churchwomen were sweet, generous, and kind. They wrapped the fish and bread in tinfoil and we walked through the festival picking the fish off the bones with our fingers.
The Jamesville herring festival is held every Easter weekend. For a few more days, you can still get fried herring plates, fresh or salted, at the Cypress Grill. The restaurant is only open January to April and closes this year on April 30. The Cypress Grill’s neighbor, just downstream, is the River’s Edge Restaurant, and they may still have herring, too.