One of Hatteras Island’s most talented – and most experienced – professional cooks never saw or ate fresh broccoli or Brussels sprouts until she went away to college.
Dee Callahan grew up on island staples: collards, potatoes rather than rice, canned beans, peas and corn. “When Dad wasn’t home, we sometimes had spaghetti or lasagna. Otherwise dinners were plain meat and vegetables.”
And the meat? She doesn’t recall ever having a piece of meat, not even a steak, that included a bone. Canned roast beef or other tinned meats were standard fare on Hatteras dinner tables. Interestingly, although seafood was shared in the village, there was very little fish on her family table since her father didn’t fish.
Her father was Carl Hollis, who worked for the U.S. Weather Bureau in Hatteras village, who married a local woman, Gail Meekins.
Flavorings were salt and pepper and, of course, salt pork or streak of lean. There was little use for garlic and herbs and spices were not popular or easily available.
Callahan claims to have been a “picky” eater so she usually took her lunch to school rather than eat the 25-cent hot lunch. When she did eat the school lunch, she remembers spaghetti with homemade light rolls and, on Fridays, fish sticks or tuna salad.
For many of the village homes the kitchens were stand-alone buildings near to but detached from the wooden houses to avoid heating the non air-conditioned living quarters and to also contain a possible kitchen fire. As a young girl, Dee really enjoyed cooking and baking in those kitchens. It made her feel quite the grown up.
A neighbor, Miss Dixie, had one such kitchen and she allowed Dee and her friend, Amy Gray, to “make cookies and fudge for the boys” so they spent a lot of time out there!
In her early teens, she and Amy started catering small gatherings – women’s Bible classes and showers and such – and they loved “making things look pretty” just as much as they liked preparing the food.
About this same time, at age 13, she started waiting tables at the Hatteras Marlin Club under the supervision of the cook, Audrey Meekins. She learned a lot about food as she watched Miss Audrey in the kitchen. There were no written recipes and Dee absorbed techniques and ingredient blends and little tricks that made the food so delicious and so visually enticing.
That experience must have aroused artistic instincts for when she went off to college she majored in commercial art. While in college, she continued to work at the Marlin Club each summer. She peeled shrimp. She shucked oysters. She opened clams, and she carefully watched Miss Audrey and her colleague, Miss Kathleen.
When Miss Audrey retired the Marlin Club offered the position to Dee and since she “was better at cooking than painting,” she accepted the job. Her first night in charge was a little scary but her husband, Darrin Callahan, and her friend, Patty Robinson, came in to help her, and it was a big success. There was no going back now.
Dee is still there and has been the kitchen manager for 20 years. She oversees the ordering and cooking of the famous Friday and Saturday night feasts for members and their lucky guests, and she creates multiple extravagant banquets that include elaborately themed dinners for the club’s annual Invitational Marlin Tournament every year in June.
The Marlin Club is now available for event rental, and Dee’s food “comes with it” in the sense that she is the only hired caterer who is allowed to use the facility.
Dee also “comes with” nearly every local wedding or fundraiser. She is in high demand and admits to finding it difficult to say no to a village bride. She is a board member with the Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation and this week will be catering at the Offshore Open Tournament.
She is often hired for celebration of life services and remembrance services in rental cottages for people who have come to Hatteras Island to honor their dearly departed, people who usually had a special love for this place. This allows her to meet “a lot of nice people” and “to participate in something that is really personal.”
By far, she finds her work on the Hatteras United Methodist Church Bereavement Committee the most fulfilling. She and a small, devoted group of women formed the committee last year to address a growing need in the community.
As old village traditions gradually fade and as people move here with no generational ties, there is sometimes nobody to provide the “funeral food” that used to generously appear at the door of the bereaved to sustain the family and to feed their visitors over a period of several days.
The Bereavement Committee sets up a dining space, usually in the Community Building or the Church Community Room, and provides buffet meals — some dishes they themselves have prepared, along with some brought by volunteers on whom they can call with short notice.
Her independent catering business is very successful. Dee gets hired through word of mouth. She never advertises her services nor does she want her number printed in such articles as these. And “in her free time” she also cooks with her brother-in-law, Dwight Callahan, at Dinky’s restaurant on the waterfront at the Village Marina in Hatteras.
There she loves to cook desserts, especially pies, and she suspects that her interest in sweets may be a result of having dessert every single night as a child, a treat many of us were denied.
Her interest in food has become considerably more sophisticated with experience and she is still open to new horizons. Her experience with Dwight has proven to be a two-way learning experience.
Dee simply explains. “I am interested in cooking. I am always changing. I read a lot.” She gets ideas that she is willing to try because sometimes she thinks she would “rather do this” than what she has been doing.
She now uses a lot of fresh herbs as she sees a “marked difference” in the flavors they impart to her food. She and Darrin, also a great cook, maintain an herb garden that gets a lot of use in their kitchen at home. Darrin is a fisherman and hunter and he likes to cook his quarry, so Dee gets to enjoy delicious food as a result of someone else’s efforts too.
She really likes to use different rices and grains, noting the flavor differences in the varieties. She is also a fan of really nice cheeses.
One of Dee’s great talents is her ability to let food speak for itself. There is no affectation, no effort to keep up with the latest fad, no unnecessary dressing up the dishes. Freshness and flavor and the beauty of the food itself are her focus. Dee Callahan makes food we all love to eat. What better compliment can we give her?
Two examples of Dee’s style are her roasted red pepper dip and her chilled crabmeat salad. She recommends them because they are flavorful while still being easy and quick to prepare.
ROASTED RED PEPPER DIP
2 (14.5 oz.) jars fire roasted peppers
8 ounces cream cheese
6 cloves garlic
3 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
12 whole basil leaves
1/3 cup sliced green onion tops
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. This is an awesome dip for fresh veggies or on steamed asparagus or grilled chicken or seafood.
CHILLED CRABMEAT SALAD
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat (picked through for shells)
1 1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup finely diced celery
1/3 cup finely diced red pepper
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Mix mayo and lemon juice and pepper until smooth. Add celery and peppers. FOLD in crabmeat, taking care not break up the lumps. Serve on lettuce as a salad or with crackers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Hatteras United Methodist Church Bereavement Committee welcomes your support either through donations to help purchase needed supplies or offers to prepare food when asked. If you would like to assist in this worthwhile effort, please contact the church at 252-986-2149 or mail a check made out to HUMC Bereavement Committee to PO Box 310, Hatteras, NC 27943.
For information about the event rentals at The Hatteras Marlin Club, contact Kathy at 252-986-2454.
(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront. Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)