Vince O’Neal – fisherman and chef – and his family
work to preserve Ocracoke’s heritage
low on the horizon, a hint of purple against the October sky, as Washie
Spencer left Howard’s Reef and steered his skiff back to Ocracoke
Island. The boat was full, heaving with the silvery forms of mullet,
most of them fat with roe. The rest of his small fleet had already gone
in, stopping at one of the island’s fish houses to unload before tying
up at Lum’s Dock.
By PAT GARBER
Most of the fish would be shipped out and sold at bigger markets, but
Washie took a few of them home to boil with potatoes and fry up as fish
cakes for his family. The year was 1936, and these were hard times on
the island. Crossing the shallows of Pamlico Sound, he gazed at the
marshes and hammocks which lined the shore, wondering what the future
would hold for his home and his family.
More than 70 years later, Washie’s daughter, Peggy, and his grandson,
Vince, were making fishcakes, using Washie’s same recipe. The fish (red
drum, black drum, bluefish, and sheepshead) were freshly
Pamlico Sound with a skiff and nets not too different from those used
by Washie Spencer.
Peggy and Vince were not just feeding their family, however. They were
representing Ocracoke’s commercial fishing community at the North
Carolina Seafood Festival, teaching the public about commercial fishing
and fresh seafood, and giving out more than 400 fishcakes as samples.
Their goal was to ensure through education and communication that the
heritage of eastern North Carolina’s commercial fishing would continue.
This year’s gathering in early October was the 24th celebration of the
North Carolina Seafood Festival and the fifth year that the Ocracoke
Working Watermen’s Association (OWWA) has had an educational booth
Located on the downtown Morehead City waterfront, the festival features
the fishing communities from Brunswick, Carteret, Dare, and Hyde
counties. There is a "Blessing of the Fleet" at the N.C. State Port
with a poetry recitation by Johnnie Baum of Hatteras Island. There is
also live entertainment, a seafood market, boat show, children’s
events, and an exciting presentation called "Cooking with the Chefs."
This ongoing event, sponsored by North Carolina Sea Grant, features
cooking by the pros from some of the best seafood restaurants in
eastern North Carolina. It allows the public to learn about cooking
seafood and sample some of eastern North Carolina’s best examples. This
year’s line-up included the Lone Cedar Cafe from Dare County, serving
pan-seared crabcakes with collards and cornbread, the
Bistro-by-the-Sea from Carteret County, offering flounder roulade, and,
of course, Vince and Peggy's fishcakes. The goal is "to introduce
coastal fishermen, their catch, and their favorite recipes to the
public, thus connecting the public with the seafood they eat and the
fishermen who catch it."
Representatives of OWWA have served drum cakes at their booth for the
last two years, but this is the first year an Ocracoke restaurant has
participated in "Cooking with the Chefs." Vince and Sue O’Neal’s Pony
Island Restaurant was given the honor.
The "Pony," as it is locally known, is the oldest continuously operated
restaurant on Ocracoke Island. Alex (Elic) Eley opened it in 1959 and
later sold it to David and Jen Esham, who ran it themselves for a while
and leased it out to Wayne Teeter and others. Vince bused tables there
for Wayne in 1974, never guessing that he would one day own it. The
Eshams sold it to Ellen Gaskill, who sold it to Vince and Sue in 1992.
Ellen, an outstanding chef, still cooks there at times.
Vince had followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, serving
in the U.S. Coast Guard and commercial fishing before he bought the
restaurant. Through the years, he has worked on the water in many
capacities, fishing in much the same way as Washie and Washie’s father
and grandfather before him. He still fishes for flounder, drum, and
blues, going out three or four days a week in his skiff, the "Miss
Katie," named after his daughter, to set and check his nets.
He and his wife Sue run the Pony together, and they take pride in
serving locally caught seafood, brought in by Vince himself from his
gill nets or bought from the Ocracoke Seafood Company. Vince’s mother,
Peggy Spencer O’Neal, has cooked there since her son bought it. She now
works part-time, preparing the "sweets" ---pies and such – and, of
course, her famous fishcakes.
Speaking about their experience in "Cooking with the Chefs," Vince said
that "My Mom and I had a great time cooking and talking about fish,
family recipes, and the island heritage." According to Barry Nash, Sea
Grant North Carolina seafood technology and marketing specialist, who
helped organize the event, their presentation was exceptionally well
He explained that "what made Vince O’s presence at this event so
important was his status as a fisherman, as well as a
restaurateur. He was the only fisherman on our program. Vince
able to convey what commercial fishing meant to his family from the
perspective of a fifth generation Ocracoke waterman...The people who
value local seafood do so because they care a great deal about the
lifestyle and heritage of commercial fishermen."
The story of Ocracoke’s fishing heritage is an ongoing one, marked by
many ups and downs. During earlier years, in his great-grandparents’
time, said Vince, everyone on the island lived off of the water, doing
subsistence fishing for crabs, oysters, clams, mullets, blues, drum,
and other species. Shrimp were not eaten back then, added Peggy, --not
until around the ‘50s. Before that, the crustaceans were considered
worthless, and the fishermen would bale them out of the nets and throw
them away. Mullet was one of the most common catches, not just for
bait, but for eating.
There were four or five fish houses before the ‘60s, buying and selling
seafood, but when Vince was a child there were none left. Sometime
around the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, he recalls, "People on the island
tried to start a fish co-op, each putting $50 in, but it didn’t make
“Ocracoke fishermen,” he says,”sold their catch to Dolan and Calvin Jr.
Burrus, who would come down from Hatteras to buy mullets and other fish
and carry them off in big trucks. Dad and I took crabs to Wanchese and
sold them to Old Man Griggs. They hauled them up there in their pickup
trucks. Then Calvin Jr. started buying crabs and then he built a fish
house here. Johnny Griffin bought it and added on to it. Things peaked
during the mid-‘70s --lots of fish and the markets were good,
especially for croakers, spot, blues, and mullet. Shrimping became big,
and there were a lot of trawlers here. My dad thought about buying a
shrimp boat. But then it all dried up."
Later the fish house was bought by Murray Fulcher, a commercial
fisherman who understood the needs of the fishermen and the importance
of sustainable fishing. When he retired, the fish house went downhill,
and in 2006 it closed its doors.
Recently, under the umbrella of the Ocracoke Foundation, the fish house
reopened as a nonprofit managed by OWWA and Ocracoke’s fishermen. The
Ocracoke Seafood Company, as it is now called, sells to restaurants and
operates a public market where people can buy fresh, local seafood.
"Ocracoke Fresh" is its marketing campaign, promoting the concept of
"caught today the traditional way."
OWWA promotes buying and eating local seafood for many reasons: it is
fresh, caught and processed by hand, sustainable, maintains old
traditions and the heritage of fishing communities, supports the local
community, and provides jobs for the people living there. Commercial
fishermen can be important stewards of the environment, as they are the
ones who are out there all the time, observing changes and possible
Vince is uncertain, however, about the future of commercial fishing in
North Carolina, and he says that the reasons are many and complex. "The
only way we’ll survive is to educate the public and get the politicians
on our side."
He explains that the lobby for imported seafood is powerful, and people
don’t realize that the imports are raised in crowded, unhealthy
conditions with lots of chemicals that are bad for the animals
themselves and for the people who eat them.
Convinced of the importance of carrying on the family’s fishing
tradition, Vince and Sue are working on getting a commercial fishing
license for their son, Carson, so that he can, if he chooses, fish when
he is older.
"You could say that the fish house is the center of the island for a
lot of the natives and a major draw for the tourist business," Vince
says. "I worry about what would happen if our fishing community died,
and I hope that our family can carry on in the seafood industry like
our ancestors have done generations before."
12 fillets of
catch of the day)
½ cup flour
2 cups diced
pepper to taste
a large pot
with enough water to cover fish and potatoes. Bring fish and potatoes
to a boil and cook until potatoes are soft. Drain and let cool. Add
remaining ingredients to fish and potatoes in a large bowl and mix
well. Hand pat into cakes and grill or fry to a golden brown.