by Leanne E. Smith
Seventy-degree weather on December 30? With some slight southerly breezes blowing off of Silver Lake, and a well-timed break in the day’s rain, it was a great day to gather around sheets of plywood propped on sawhorses in anticipation of oysters, shrimp, stews, and hushpuppies outside the Ocracoke Seafood Company for the 10th annual Ocracoke Oyster Roast and Shrimp Steam hosted by the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association (OWWA).
The Ocracoke Seafood Company closes seasonally at Thanksgiving—with the exception of the late December oyster roast that celebrates the community’s last fish house, which the OWWA formed to save in 2006. The sustainability and education-minded nonprofit now includes more than thirty men and women who continue Ocracoke’s longtime fishing industry with non-mechanical harvesting methods for fish, clams, oysters, and crabs: as OWWA website describes, “Caught today the traditional way.”
The 2015 roast was all-you-could-eat for $25 per adult—or $30 each for “heavy hitters.” “You know who you are!” the admission sign read. A donation bucket at the admission table invited additional contributions, and another $5 could buy a ticket in the raffle for a blown glass mahi-mahi made by Adam Kaser, a ship in a bottle made by Jim Goodwin, an antique French platter with a vintage Swedish scaling knife from Roxie’s Antiques, or an insulated OWWA bag. Proceeds from the day support the OWWA’s education outreach projects and the Working Watermen’s Exhibit.
At the fish house, OWWA treasurer Hardy Plyler welcomed the crowd, saying, “Everybody have a big time. Eat all you want as long as it lasts.” Many in the crowd responded with agreeing cheers when he mentioned that, “As commercial fishermen, we need your help in Raleigh…Encourage [legislators] to do what they need to do to sustain our livelihood.” OWWA supporters interested in specific legislative bills can read about them on the OWWA website (http://www.ocracokewatermen.org/), which updates readers about specific legislative bills and asks for help in amplifying the fishing community’s voice.
Plyler later added that “The consumer has to demand access to local seafood” and that “Tourism is complemented by commercial fishermen.” OWWA aims for the Ocracoke Seafood Company to be open by Easter weekend each year, with the available stock increasing as the waters get warmer and more fish migrate back to the area—along with the tourists who seek the variety of local seafood the fish house sells. At the roast, though, a few particular items are exactly what the crowd wants. Pink shrimp to peel and piles of oysters to shuck, of course, were highlights. Among the oysters, pickers can also find hooked (or bent) mussels—little yellow morsels in iridescent purple shells—and sometimes tiny peachy-white pea (or oyster) crabs.
The crispy, sweet golf-ball-sized hushpuppies from the Ocracoke Oyster Company were the first to disappear. Carissa VanderVere, mother of OWWA member Teresa “Tree” Ray, made the crab and shrimp bisque. Vince O’Neal of the Pony Island Restaurant made the fish stew, which more closely resembled Ocracoke clam chowder (http://www.ncfolk.org/chowder-taster-touring-a-clam-chowder-cook-off-at-the-ocracoke-community-center/) than the inland Eastern North Carolina fish stews. Rather than the fish-potato-onion combination with tomatoes, pepper, and whole eggs like inland stews, O’Neal’s coastal stew was straightforwardly fish, potatoes, and onions in clear broth.
Before the 2 p.m. start, the line stretched well past the fish house parking lot, and at varying paces, eager eaters cycled through to get their food and find a place to stand at the temporary tables scattered with piles of oysters, replenished as more were steamed, and punctuated by rolls of paper towel, jars of cocktail sauce, and wine bottles re-used for vinegar. Some people brought their own seasonings—cans of Old Bay seasoning and bottles of Tabasco sauce. It’s also a good idea to bring an oyster knife. It doesn’t have to be sharp—just pointed, and preferably short—and it’s also helpful for the handle to have a ridge for thumb protection. That way, a shucker can separate the oyster hinge without also endangering their palm with a sharp knife slipping and without jamming their thumb repeatedly on the rough shells. The annual oyster roast is a good excuse to buy an oyster knife—and use it next year, and preferably before then, too.
The Working Watermen’s Exhibit is a tenth-of-a-mile walk from the fish house toward the ferry dock at the Community Square in a small wooden building perched over the water. That’s where the potluck dessert and spiced cider reception was held to complement the seafood feast. Between the seafood spread at the fish house and the potluck dessert at the exhibit, families and groups of friends found truck tailgates, golf cart luggage racks, and picnic tables worked well. At the exhibit, Pat Austin managed the dessert table. Her husband and son are fishermen, and she sees the next generation in her family continuing in the business. About the exhibit, she said, “This room is of the fishermen.”
The line was long, but the stew and steamer pots were deep, so there was enough to go around for a good while. Before the rain revisited the island between 3:30 and 4 p.m. ahead of the scheduled 5 p.m. ending time for the event, fish house manager Patty Plyler estimated 250 to 300 people had attended the event to tackle the 200 pounds of shrimp and 40 bushels of oysters. There was conversation throughout the crowd, of course, but also occasional waves of the kind of pause that signals shared focus on good food. About the 10th annual event, Patty said, “It’s been wonderful.” Yes. It was.