by Bob Garner[Editor’s note: We were so excited to receive an email from Winston-Salem’s John F. Blair Publishing asking if we’d be interested in having Bob Garner write a guest post for NCFood. Bob Garner? THE North Carolina barbecue expert? You bet your prized hog, we were interested! Especially since his new book Foods That Make You Say MMM-MMM just came out. Bob is a television personality, restaurant reviewer, speaker, author, pit master, and connoisseur of North Carolina barbecue. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we did.]
Stray very far from one particular stretch of the Neuse River near La Grange or Kinston and chances are you’ll never have experienced what the locals call simply “fish stew,” a venerable dish of rockfish, bacon, potatoes, onions and one “unexpected” ingredient.
Since the Neuse is the scroll on which the story of fish stew has been inscribed over many generations, somewhere on the banks of the river is still the most appropriate location for cooking and enjoying fish stew. In the past, fishermen pulled seine nets to catch the fish and made fish stew right on the spot. Today, the gatherings are more infrequent but no less anticipated.
At a recent riverside gathering I visited, the stew was cooked over a traditional wood fire, although gas is more common today. Host Randy Whitman set about getting the fire going in an open-top wood stove, burning oak wood nearly down to coals. Meanwhile, several guests sat down to peel and slice a five-pound bag of potatoes and a dozen onions.
A rounded-belly, heirloom cast iron wash pot, designed not to boil over, was lifted into place on the stove. And the first thing that went into the pot, once the pot was hot, was an entire pound of diced-up bacon.
After the bacon had “fried up purty,” according to head cook Whitman, the potatoes and onions were added, along with two or three gallons of water and a quart zip- lock bag of chopped scallions, although all local fish stew cooks don’t necessarily include this last ingredient.
Seasoning? “Some people measure their salt and pepper, but their stew always tastes the same,” joked Whitman. “We like a little variety. We’re all men today, so we’ll add a lot more pepper. It’ll be a two-Pepsi stew.”
Neuse River fish stews always have a tomato-based stock. Whitman squirts ketchup into the water in his pot until the color seems right, while other cooks prefer to add tomato paste or to begin with undiluted tomato juice.
Fish is added once the potatoes are nearly tender. Whitman uses a mixture of boneless fillets cut into chunks and sections of on-the-bone rockfish, cut crosswise through the backbone. Fish bones add significantly to the flavor.
Once the fish is white and flaky, after approximately a half-hour of cooking, the final and defining ingredient is added. Several dozen raw eggs are cracked individually into bowls and are slid into the pot to poach in the simmering stock.
As they gathered around the pot to serve themselves in cardboard bowls, several attendees joked that they intended to enjoy “a whole settin’ “ of eggs. How many is that? “As many as a hen can cover!”
Fellowship and shared tasks make a private-affair fish stew a special experience, but anyone can sample an excellent, authentic fish stew every Friday, year-round at:
7645 U.S. 70
La Grange, NC 28551*
*located between Goldsboro and Kinston.
Bob Garner is a television personality, restaurant reviewer, speaker, author, pit master, and connoisseur of North Carolina barbecue. He has published three previous books on the subject, Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue, North Carolina Barbecue; Flavored by Time, and Bob Garner’s Book of Barbecue; North Carolina’s Favorite Food. He divides his time between home in Greenville, N.C., and Raleigh, where he serves as the “Minister of Barbecue Culture” at The Pit Authentic Barbecue Restaurant. Read more here on his author page.