by Malinda Dunlap Fillingim
In my 1941 first edition of Jonathan Daniels’ book, Tar Heels: A Portrait of North Carolina, I read with delight his sentence in the ‘Frying Pan and Jug’ chapter, “North Carolinians don’t eat out unless they have to.”
This was the case in my house while growing up. We never ate out unless we absolutely had to, primarily because of my mother’s life motto that cleanliness was next to godliness and no kitchen except hers was clean enough to meet her sanitary standards. She was the Queen of Clean and because of her reign, we ate out only if necessary and necessary came about once a year, just like Christmas. She was terrified that one of us would get sick from food poorly cooked or unsanitary cooking conditions, worried that salmonella would find its way into our digestive system.
When we traveled she packed a shoe box with biscuits, crackers and peanut butter, Mason jars of tea, and tomatoes she’d slice and place on white bread, sans mayonnaise. We knew not to complain as we drove past gas stations that sold boiled peanuts or road side diners that advertised foods we only read about. We knew never to mention wanting a hot dog or a barbeque sandwich on trips because Mother reminded us no place was immune to some sort of food poisoning, disgusting flies, or unwashed worker’s hands. Once, when my aunt let her cats roam in her kitchen while cooking, Mother grabbed us kids and we left, hungry. We never ate that aunt’s food again. Germs were her enemy and the enemy was lurking behind every crumb outside her culinary domain.
My mother’s germ warfare rubbed my step-father, Carl the wrong way. He loved eating out and trying new foods. His life as a US Marine took him many different places and he’d recount all the wondrous foods he enjoyed, leaving me hungry for variety outside of my mother’s kitchen. While she attended nursing school at night, he and I ventured to restaurants around Jacksonville, Swansboro, and Morehead City, all within close proximity of our Camp Jejune home. We’d dirty up dishes to cover our eating escapades, tricking her into thinking we had eaten at home. Those were fun meals with Carl until Mother became suspicious and discovered our outings. Somehow Carl convinced her to try a restaurant he knew she’d like, one with a perfect name for The Queen of Clean.
We drove to Morehead City one spring Saturday. After much cajoling, she agreed to eat at the restaurant perfectly named for her, Sanitary Fish Market located on Evans Street. She inspected everything with her extraordinary eyes, calculating if it was clean enough for us to consume its foods. She noted the clean glasses, the hairnets on the cooks, the clean hands of the servers, and the spotless floors and tables. She agreed that any restaurant with such a wholesome name was worthy of her patronage.
We ate that day free from worry and enjoyed laughing at her zealous quest for germ free gastronomy. She ate fish, shrimp and especially hushpuppies like there was no tomorrow. At the end of the meal, Carl estimated that Mother ate about twenty hushpuppies, a large sum for a small woman who carefully cleaned her hands between bites. She blushed and said they were better than anything she’d ever eaten before. After that day, we went to the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant frequently, and still to this day, when I eat there, I think about the hushpuppies that hushed up the Queen of Clean one large bite at a time.
Sanitary Fish Market was named so because Charles Wallace, the owner of the building that Sanitary’s proprietors, Tony Seamon and Ted Garner rented in 1938, insisted there be no beer or wine sold. They agreed and thus the name. But don’t tell my mother; she thinks the name came because of its cleanliness, which. of course. is also true.
Sanitary’s Famous Tar Heel Hush Puppies
1 pound fine corn meal
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of soda
1 cup fresh buttermilk
Stir to thick consistency. Drop by spoonful into deep peanut oil, 375 degrees F, until done.
Sanitary Fish Market
501 Evans ST
P.O. Box 38
Morehead City, NC 28557
Malinda Dunlap Fillingim had the good fortune to move to her step-father’s hometown, Walnut Cove, NC when she was in eighth grade. Curious by nature, Malinda asked Mama Dunlap so many questions about her cooking that she finally gave up some of the old recipes she carried in her head. Malinda is an ESL teacher at Cape Fear Community College and lives in Leland with her husband.