By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Junior bond takes a straight razor to Michael’s neck. As he shaves an impeccable nape hairline, the 40-year-veteran Williamston, North Carolina, barber declares that he hates herring. A strapping big tobacco farmer in overalls who sits waiting for his turn in the one-man shop takes Bond’s pronouncement as a personal affront. “Me, I’d rather have herring than a T-bone steak,” he says. “Give me six, cremated, and all the roe I can get.”
Bond can’t deny herring’s popularity in Martin County. “Them who like it come from everywhere, far and near,” he says in a honeyed accent that we hear as “farnyear.” But when Bond travels to Jamesville to eat at the Cypress Grill—the last of the old fishing shacks on the banks of the Roanoke River—he prefers stewed rock (rock is the local term for striped bass). The Cypress grill has a few local fish (and absolutely nothing for strict carnivores) on its menu: perch, flounder, trout, and catfish, plus devil crab, oysters, and shrimp. But it is defined by river herring and it’s open for business only from January through April, which is when the foot-long saltwater fish swim upstream to spawn in freshwater.
For us, having known herring only as slippery little rectangular hors d’oeuvres that come in a jar with sour cream or some sort of pickling emulsion, the sight of a couple of cooked river herring on a plate is a jolt. They actually look like fish! Heads are gone but not the tails; the fish are veiled in the thinnest possible sheath of cornmeal, and their flesh has been scored with notches so that when they are tossed in boiling oil, they cook quickly deep down to the bone.
The big issue among river herring lovers is degree of doneness. Some ask for it sunny-side up, meaning minimal immersion in the fry kettle, resulting in a fish from which you can peel away the skin and lift moist pieces of meat off the bones. We watch one expert at a nearby table go to work on a trio of such fish, using fork and fingers to get at the meat on top, then eating around the little bones so he can get at all the meat below. After about 30 minutes of work, pausing only to drink sweet tea and pop an occasional piece of fried okra into his mouth, he has a plate on which not a speck of meat remains, just three denuded skeletons, as perfectly clean as you’d see on the platter of a well-fed cartoon cat.
The opposite way to go is to ask for your herring cremated: fried until hard and crunchy and so well cooked that all the little bones have become indistinguishable from the flesh around them. The meat itself is transformed—the natural oiliness is gone but the flavor has become even more intense. The crust and the interior are melded, and they break off together in unbelievably savory bite-size pieces, finally leaving nothing but a herring backbone on the plate.
“Cremated, it won’t give to a fork,” explains Leslie Gardner, who, with his wife, Sally, has run the Cypress Grill for more than 30 years. “Those that want it cooked real hard pick it up by the tail and eat it like a banana.”
A tall, lean, soft-spoken gent who used to grow tobacco between the yearly herring runs, Gardner recalls that they were a local staple in the middle of the last century, at which time herring shacks like his were common on the riverbank. “Fish you catch in the river taste nothing like the ones from the ocean,” he says. While Gardner cannot quite explain the difference in flavor, the herring fan at the barbershop back in Williamston had said he thought Roanoke River fish were the best of all because they are rich as butter itself, especially when accompanied by fried-crisp packets of their opulent roe.
“Herring are always on the move,” Gardner tells us. “We get some here that were tagged in Nova Scotia. They need to move. When you net them, as soon as you lift them out of the water they flop and then they expire.” He recalls that 50 years ago it was common for fishermen to net 500,000 or more of the gleaming silver sardines in a single day, using nets literally a mile long. No longer. Overfishing has reduced the number so dramatically that a drift net today might snare 15 or 20. Gardner used to catch his own, but now he gets the 400 to 500 herrings he serves each day from a supplier who pulls them from Albemarle Sound. Every morning, he brings them to a shed behind the restaurant where they are scaled, cleaned, and scored, their roe saved for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
While some herring-crazed patrons fill up on four, five, six, or more of the plush fish, we must advise first-time visitors to the Cypress Grill to leave room for dessert. When we stop to visit one day around 10 A.M., Gardner leads us right over to the pie case—a wooden cupboard built by a neighbor to be so sturdy, he says, “you could dance on it.” He insists we feel the bottom of a pie pan, still nearly too hot to touch. We sit down then and there for a piece of chocolate pie that is intensely fudgy.
We suspect that many customers return each year for something more than cremated herring and fine chocolate pie. Dinner at the Cypress Grill, a worn-wood cabin that lists with age, evokes images of a nearly vanished way of life. Its low-ceilinged dining room is crowded every evening with seafood lovers for whom the four-month season is cause for the kind of exuberance you’d see at a fish camp after a great day’s catch.
Leslie Gardner is rarely in the dining room at night because he is busy watching over the kitchen, but Sally Gardner is an enthusiastic hostess, making it her business to greet old friends and make sure newcomers know how to eat what’s on their plate. One evening at twilight, we sit at a rickety table gazing out the window to the broad Roanoke River flowing easily below. She steps close and volunteers her memory of what it was like when fish were netted by the thousands. “They’d raise the net full,” she says. “The herring gleamed as they came up into the light. They sparkled in the river like diamonds.”