Text and photos by Sol Weiner
Summer in North Carolina has now come and gone, and with it the height of beach season. Like many humans, I like the beach—there’s an ocean you can jump into, and a lot of tasty seafood. And like many folklorists, I also spend a lot of time in my car. While most of that time is spent driving, smaller portions are used on noble pursuits like sleeping in Walmart parking lots, changing clothes, and yes, eating. While some people have told me I really shouldn’t eat nearly as many meals in my car as I do, it’s easy to justify a variety of possibly unhealthy life choices in the name of research. Enter the shrimp burger.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend invited me to stay at her family’s beach house in Emerald Isle. Emerald Isle is what I would call the eye of the Shrimp Burger storm. Essentially, it isn’t itself really the place to get a shrimp burger, but the ten miles in any direction (save east) feature a handful of locally-renowned spots to find the Crystal Coast favorite. The two most celebrated are Big Oak Drive In & BBQ in Salter Path, and El’s Drive-In in Morehead City, the latter of which I stopped at on my way back to Chapel Hill.
Now I have to explain what a shrimp burger is if you’ve never heard of it. Or maybe you’ve heard of it, but are thinking of the South Carolina version—shrimp, onions, and peppers held together in a bread-crumb patty. The North Carolina version is not nearly so fancy an affair. The kind of shrimp burger you’ll find in these parts is simply fried shrimp on a bun, often accompanied by some combination of slaw, tartar sauce, and ketchup. It’s very much like a po’ boy. The emphasis is on the quality of the shrimp and frying them just right.
El’s Drive-In in Morehead City is, like the shrimp burger, stripped down to the bare essentials. El’s focuses on what works and eschews what doesn’t. The open parking lot has no designated spots, so diners can park under a giant oak tree, face the street, or even pull up to a grassy area with picnic tables. I parked close enough to the plastic-sign menu over the doors of the restaurant to read the offerings. The menu has pretty much I could ever want—that is to say, drive-in classics like cheeseburgers and hot dogs—but this was just background research; I knew already what I’d be ordering. Once I was parked, a waiter quickly noticed me and headed my direction.
The shrimp burger was divine, and I ordered a coke and hushpuppies to go with it. The sandwich was heavy—not because the battering was too oily, but because the shrimp were plump and there were a lot of them. The slaw had both mayonnaise and mustard which added a zing that cut through the salt and grease. Like most food eaten in my car, it was gone in roughly 30 seconds, a feat of which I am both proud and a little saddened by in those forlorn moments after the food has disappeared. All together and with a tip for some very hard-working waiters, the whole thing only ran about six or seven dollars.
Cheap shrimp, cheap gas, and beach houses won’t be sustainable for much longer. In the name of folklore, I’m going to extensively document all three before they’re gone. I also need them as vices to fuel me in this very work, until that day comes when we declare, no more! Just imagine how rich those interviews will be, though—the ones my inquisitive grandchildren will conduct with me when I am old and gray. What was it like driving, Grandpa, instead of having to take the public hovercraft everywhere? What was it like to eat shrimp before they were grown in petri dishes? Maybe I’ll pretend out of guilt that I didn’t enjoy the indulgence and opulence of eating fried shrimp, driving the coast with my windows rolled down. But if I’m being honest, I’ll tell them all about the good old days. Shoot, I miss them already.