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As I rocked on the piazza waiting for supper, the aroma of shrimp frying in the kitchen teased my nostrils.  Grandmom stuck her head out the front door and announced in her usual stern but loving way, "All hands, come on in for supper.  Now don't waste a minute.  It is on the table, and it is getting cold."  I had been waiting to hear her say those words since we left home that morning for a weekend visit with my grandparents and aunt at Hatteras.

The timing for the visit was perfect. My brother and I had a day off from school and Mama had a long weekend from her work at the hospital.  It was early, sometime around 6 a.m. when we left Washington, N.C., on our day-long journey to Grandmom's house at Hatteras.  The distance was only 173 miles, but the trip was complicated by the necessity of having to catch three ferries -- one at Alligator River, another at Manns Harbor where we crossed Croatan Sound, and a third at Oregon Inlet. These trips added at least three hours of travel time making it a rather arduous journey.  Rarely were we lucky enough to arrive at the ferry docks just as the ferryboat was being loaded.  More often than not, we had to wait in long lines as cars ahead of us were transported to the other side.  It was not uncommon to wait while the boat completed several round trips before it was our turn to board.  

Driving off the Oregon Inlet ferry on Hatteras Island boosted my spirits.  As a child, I never understood why, it just did.  Now I know.  Oregon Inlet is a passage from a world of stress to a world of relaxation and freedom. Today this is true not only for me but also for others.  Recently, I asked a good friend who moved to Hatteras from the frustrations of corporate insanity to tell me what made Hatteras so special to him.  He responded by quoting an inscription on a plaque that his mother once hung on the wall over the commode in their island home,

"Here, time is slow and gracious,
A companion, not a master."

“I’m reminded of that truth every time I stand in front of the commode,” he chuckled with a twinkle in his eye.  

"Amen!" I thought.

Those 11 words precisely capture the allure of Hatteras, the seductiveness that draws so many people to her waters and baptizes them with her serenity.

It was mid-September, 1956.  The air on the Banks lacked the humidity often associated with the days of August and early September.  A gentle breeze from the north with its cooler, crisper air was a reminder that fall was approaching.  The cloudless sky, peppered with monarch butterflies on their annual migration to Mexico, was further evidence that fall was only days away.  Along with the butterflies, Mama, my brother, and I traveled south on Hatteras island.

My excitement escalated as we drew near Grandmom's house.  I could not wait to get back at Hatteras village.  Mama's broad smile revealed her excitement too.  She said she had heard that the shrimpers were "pulling in record catches and if the Lord is willing," she was going to cook some for supper.  Shrimp was Mama's favorite seafood.

We arrived at Grandmom's house late in the afternoon.  After a short visit with my grandparents and my aunt, we all piled into the car and headed for Oden's fish house.  If there were shrimp for sale on the island, we could usually buy them there.

We turned off the main road beside Mr. Dan's store onto an oyster shell lane that led to the fish house.  As Mama stopped the car, we could see a shrimp boat unloading its catch on the wharf.  A faint stench of decaying sea life filled the air.  We made our way to its origin -- the wharf in front of the fish house. The daily accumulation of slime from the fish and shrimp unloaded from trawlers and skiffs on the dock was impossible to wash away. The sea life residue decayed and faintly fouled the air.

A gathering of local boys, barefoot and shirtless, were squatting around a pile of shrimp that had been unloaded on the dock in front of the fish house.  The shrimp, six hours before, had been swimming and scavenging on the bottom of the Pamlico Sound. As swiftly as they could move, the boys picked up shrimp with both hands, forced their thumbs between the head and body, and with an outward flick of their thumb, the animal's head went flying from its body landing in a growing pile near the boys' feet.  When their hands could hold no more, they tossed the decapitated shrimp bodies into wire baskets. After the containers were filled, the shrimp were weighed and packed in ice inside wooden rectangular boxes. These containers were soon shipped on a local freight boat to seafood distributors on the mainland.  

There is an art to heading shrimp and every boy on the dock was a master of this craft. They were paid two cents a pound for their service. By the time the last shrimp's head fell to the dock late that night, some of the guys earned as much as $10 apiece, not a bad day's work for teenage boys living in Hatteras village in the '50s.

"Hey, Donald. How ya' doing?" Mama said to the owner of the fish house, who was busy weighing fish being sold to him by Mr. Nacie, a local pound net fisherman.

"Why, hey, Naomi," Donald responded as he look away from the large dial of the scale that hung from a rafter inside the fish house where Mr. Nacie's fish were being weighed.

"When did ya’ get down here?"

"Me and the boys, we drove here today.  I heard that the shrimpers were doing real good this season and by the looks of all them out there on the docks, the rumor is true."
"My blessed, I ain't never seen so many as we’ve had this season," responded Donald.

"Do you want a mess of them?"

"I sure do.  I was hoping I was going to be able to have some for supper.  Weigh me out about three pounds."

As Donald packaged the shrimp for Mama, Grandmom had noticed several porgies lying in the stern of the hull of Mr. Nacie's skiff. Porgy was a name given to spadefish by the old timers of Hatteras. She walked to the edge of the dock where the skiff was tied to get a better look at a fish she dearly loved to eat.  

While Mr. Nacie was busy shoveling fish from the skiff onto the dock, he noticed Grandmom eyeing the porgies.

"Mag, how'd you like one of these porgies to bake for supper?" he asked.

"Why, Nacie, that sure would be nice.  Are you sure you can spare one?"

"Now you know there is more here than I can eat."

As was the custom, he gave her the fish free of charge.  Hatteras people looked out for each other.  If a village native wanted a mess of fish, all he or she had to do was to show up at the docks when the fishermen arrived from their nets.  There was a fee only for the fish shipped off the island.

"Why Nacie, honey, I sure do appreciate that," exclaimed Grandmom whose face was beaming.  She called everybody honey.

"Clifford," she shouted to my grandfather, who was paying for the shrimp just inside the fish house door, "look at what Nacie's done and give us."  She held up the porgy so all of us could see it.  

"My blessed, Nacie, you didn't have to do that," responded Pop Pop.

"It is my pleasure," responded Nacie as he tossed another shovel full of fish from his skiff up on the dock.

"I'll clean it for Mag to bake for supper tomorrow night.  Much obliged!" my grandfather shouted as he walked away from the docks toward the car.

We climbed back into the car and headed for home with enough fresh seafood for two suppers.

Pop Pop cleaned the porgy outside by the pond near the house on a temporarily constructed table he made from a board and two cement blocks, which he found under the house. He removed the scales and guts, tossing them into the nearby ditch. He left the head attached to the rest of the fish’s body.  After cutting several vertical slits along its side, he placed the porgy in the icebox, where it remained until Grandmom was ready to bake it.

Grandmom helped Mama clean the shrimp in a pan of water she placed on the kitchen table.  Since Grandmom's kitchen had no counters, the table served as both a place for food preparation and for dining.  Mama was very careful to remove the black "veins" from the shrimps' backs.  She said that the black stuff was shrimp hockey and she didn't want any of us to eat it.  Since Mama was a nurse, she was very conscious about cleanliness.

Once the shrimp were deveined and thoroughly rinsed, Grandmom rolled them in a dry mixture of flour, salt, and pepper.  Mama melted several spoons full of lard in an iron skillet, black and crusted from many years of use.  When the shrimp hit the hot grease, it splattered everywhere.  Mama was careful to immediately jump back from the stove, so as not to be burned after delivering the critters to their sizzling destiny. Once in a while, some moisture from one of the shrimp would cause the grease to pop, sending a blistering bead of it flying from the pan. While the shrimp were cooking, it was not unusual to hear a few of Mama’s sporadic high-pitched yells coming from the kitchen as a result of her skin being in the line of fire of the flying, torturous hot grease. Often she held a pot lid near the skillet to shield herself from the painful flying droplets.

As the shrimp turned a pale pink color, Mama carefully turned each one over with a long handled fork.  After the last shrimp was turned, she placed a lid over the sizzling delicacies. There they reminded until the flour that lightly covered the shrimp had turned a golden amber color.  When they were done, she placed the shrimp in a bowl that she covered with an old dented aluminum top whose companion pot had long been discarded. This was her routine until all the shrimp were cooked.

Grandmom prepared porgy by placing the fish in a large baking pan, covering it with chopped onions, potatoes, and lots of salt and pepper. She cooked it in the oven.  When it was time to be served, she placed the steaming hot fish surrounded with onions and potatoes on a large platter.  She poured the juices that formed during baking over the porgy, creating the final touch to a cuisine that looked like it had been prepared in the finest of restaurants.  

Along with the shrimp and fish, Grandmom made some of her pan-fried cornbread fritters and Mama prepared the coleslaw. Once the table was cleaned from preparing supper, my aunt, who made no claims to being talented in the preparation of food, did her part by setting the table.  Along with the main menu items, she placed a can of King Puerto Rico molasses on the table.  Cornbread fritters drowned in molasses were dessert.

With the food on the table, Grandmom called “all hands” to supper.  She didn’t have to call twice.  The aromas from the kitchen had the men folk on the edge of their seats waiting for the word.  In short order, everyone was seated, and Grandmom, in her most reverent but trembling voice, offered her standard grace -- one that I’m sure her father said many times as she was growing up.

Humble our hearts, O Lord
And make us truly thankful
For these and all other blessings….Amen.

It didn’t take long for the food, with all the hard work of preparation, to disappear from the table and enter our stomachs, but not before every morsel was savored as it passed from our lips to the back of our throats. I still enjoy those heavenly gastronomic delights from the sea with all the trimmings that Grandmom and Mama once prepared, but somehow they don’t quite equal the taste of those served at Grandmom’s table.  

Sunday morning our visit was over.  It was time to repeat the travel events of past Friday, but this time in reverse order.  The monarch butterflies continued their southern migration, counter to our northern trek to Oregon Inlet.  We arrived at the ferry just as it pulled away from the dock. There were 42 cars in line ahead of us, which meant we had at least an hour's wait before we would be taken across Oregon Inlet.  My brother and I enjoyed some extra unexpected time exploring the nearby beach and dunes. As I walked on the beach, visions of mouth-watering golden shrimp and delicious baked porgy skipped through my head.  I could all but taste them.

Mama waited in the car.  As a light breeze from the ocean filtered through her curly black hair, she read a romance novel and smiled with every word.  All too soon we would board the ferry and cross Oregon Inlet leaving behind our slow gracious companion, time, returning to its controlling twin on other side.


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