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Monday, November 19, 2012

No. 117 Mullet Roe

Like ‘em or not, mullet roe were very much a part of life from the first full moon in October until well into the first new moon of November. Mention them to others, and even to some Islanders, and you’ll see a wrinkled nose and often a question such as “how can you eat that stuff?” But “eat” it was an understatement for many of my family and friends and others on Harkers Island. Whether fried or baked, fresh or frozen, salted or dried, fall would not be fall without at least one special meal of red mullet roe.

A fresh red roe waiting to frozen, salted, dried, or eaten
“Big mullets” is the name given to the fish when they swell to more than double their normal size while growing their eggs, literally millions of eggs. When the wind turned to the no’thard, these mullets would school by the tens of thousands, and dozens of crews would leave the Island trying to find them. Seeing even one of them jump would create a stir among the fishermen, causing them to let out a gill net in a wide circle that was then pulled together, if they were lucky, with hundreds, even thousands of pounds of the swollen and silvery fish caught in or rolled into the mesh.

In my early youth the fish themselves were discarded after the roe was harvested — only the “livers and gizzards” saved to be served as yet another delicacy. But not many years later, locals came to love the bulging fillets of the roe mullets, with its flaky white meat, almost as much as the roe itself.

During a mullet blow, people would gather at the fish houses just to get their hands on half a dozen fish, almost always given for free, to take home. Others would buy a hundred pounds or more so they could have enough to roe to freeze, salt, or dry, and to last them through the winter.

A small portion of the roe were white rather than the “reddish orange” that was everyone’s favorite. I never heard of anyone eating any of the white roe, and it was standard practice to squeeze the belly of any fish just enough to see the color of the roe that was squeezed out before choosing one to take home.

At our house, my father preferred a combination of dried and salted roe to any other. A yearly ritual was to lay several dozen on the south facing porch to dry in the autumn sun for several days. When at last they were ready, he would ship some by mail to my brothers who were living away at the time, and the rest he would keep in a large sealed can until all were finally shared or eaten.

In recent years, with the fish houses all gone, you consider yourself lucky to get even one roe in the fall. But even that one is worth the wait and trouble for those who grew up as accustomed to enjoying a mullet roe in October as to having a turkey in November.

No. 116 Roasting Conchs

In early Spring and late fall the waters of Back Sound can sometimes be as clear as glass. A    combination of lower temperatures and calming winds combine to remove whatever it is that makes the water so thick the rest of the year.

Besides offering a pristine view of the sandy bottom, the clear cool water allowed us to see the conchs [and welks] that hide in the grass lumps that dotted the tide line. With nothing more than a skiff and an ore, my brother and I would scour the bottom from David’s dock to Billy Hamilton’s landing. When we were lucky, we would see one or more, and sometimes as many as a dozen conchs nestled among the swaying sea grass. One of us would hold the skiff steady while the other would lean over and reach for the conch.

One thing about the clear water that we sometimes lost sight of was that it could be a magnifying lens, distorting how deep the water under us really was. Sometimes we would lean, and then stretch farther than we had expected, finally reaching so far that our rolled-up shirt sleeve would get wet all the way to our shoulder. Other times the cool clear water would reach to our neck and hairline, but in spite of that we never gave up or pulled back until we had that conch firmly in our grasp.
A live conch washed up on the shore at flood tide

Once we had gathered all we could find, we would hurry home to enjoy what we had taken. Sometimes that meant “beating them out” so Mama could stew them for us and the whole family. But other times, especially when the weather was bright and sunny, we would cook them ourselves.

That meant roasting them over an open fire. This required gathering sticks or tearing apart fish boxes to use for kindling. Believe it or not, we sometimes made our fodder from old wooden decoys that Edith’s Darrel (Willis) had thrown behind his old shed. Once the flames were burning, we would drop our catch into the flame and watch them as they began to sizzle. We could soon hear them “popping” as the outer shell began to crack in the searing heat. After a few minutes we would begin to poke and probe the smaller oval and outer shell that protects the living conch as it withdraws into the hollow of the bigger shell. We had learned from experience that when the oval shell falls off, the conch is ready to eat.

Then would begin the most delicate part of our operation; pulling the white hot conch out of the fire and dropping it into a bucket of fresh water we had pumped from a shallow well. Once it had cooled enough to be handled, the fleshy core could be pulled out and was ready to clean — that is if we had correctly determined that the conch was fully cooked. If in our haste we had jumped the gun, it would require using a hammer to break open what was left.

Almost all of a roasted conch could be eaten, even the “cheese” that was nestled in the point of the cone. Only a small gut on the inside of the muscle was usually discarded.  Once that was done, and what was left was washed off one final time, we would begin to tear off chunks of the meat to savor and enjoy.

One thing about roasted conchs that made them even better than stewed ones for some of us was that they were so very “tough” that every bite you took could take minutes to chew on and swallow. The longer that took, the longer you had to taste and enjoy it. And the happier you were that you had gone to the trouble of doing the whole thing in the first place.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

No. 114 Why is it called Shell Point?

Why is it called Shell Point? I’m pretty sure it is because of the massive mound of sea shells that once were piled high at the far eastern end of the Island. It was said that the shells had been piled there over many generations by native Americans, supposedly to build a bridge from the Island to Core Banks. Almost all of the shell mounds were gone by the time I can remember, although on low tide you could see remnants of the pile that headed out to the eastward.

Where did all those shells go?

Watching the sun go down at Shell Point with
my granddaughter, Eden.
One of my father's oft-told stories was that as a young man his earliest driving experience was with a truck. It was used to haul shells from Shell Point to dump along the path that became the main Harkers Island road. According to the story, his co-worker was Henry Davis, the son of Cleveland Davis.  Those shells were the initial bed for what is now Island Drive. I vaguely recall him saying that after their project was completed even more shells were transported elsewhere in the County for similar purposes.

My father explained that Cleveland, and Daddy's father, Charlie Hancock, had a contract or job to move the shells for one of the New Deal operations, so this would have been in the mid 1930s. He recalled it as the WPA, but it could have been one of the several others.

His anecdotes were mostly about how the shells would puncture the tires on the truck and that he and Henry would sometimes have to remove the tire and patch the tubes several times in one journey to and from the Point. Even with all the delays, their job was eventually done, and when it was, the shells at Shell Point became just a memory.