August 28, 1983
By STEVEN V. ROBERTS
STEVEN V. ROBERTS is a reporter in The Times Washington bureau.
All over the Carolinas, the signs on the restaurants proclaim ''Calabash- style seafood.'' After seeing them for years, I finally decided to find out what the signs meant, but that did not prove to be an easy assignment.
The popular advertising slogan derives from Calabash, N.C., a small fishing village just north of the South Carolina line that boasts 180 people, 32 restaurants, 75 fishing boats and a well-earned reputation for wonderful seafood. We arrived there at lunchtime on a summer Saturday and drove around the area for several minutes before deciding on Capt. Nance's, a pleasant-looking spot right on the water.
The town is actually situated on an inlet some distance from the Atlantic, but that sheltered location provides a natural port for a small fleet of shrimp boats, several of which can be seen from the back window of Capt. Nance's. I learned later that these boats belonged to Lennon Nance and his two brothers, Calabash natives whose father and grandfather had gone to sea before them, searching for the small, delicate-flavored shrimp that is the mainstay of the Calabash kitchen.
With four of us at the table - my wife and I and our two children - were able to sample a variety of entrees. My wife had a deviled crab that was crisp and spicy, without too much of the breading that can easily ruin that dish. The fried oysters, a specialty of the Carolina coast, were plump and flavorful, unlike the fried clams, which were a bit rubbery.
But the star of the meal was clearly the shrimp, fresh, bite-sized morsels, fried in a light batter and served in a heaping pink mound, surrounded by tartar and cocktail sauce. I did not think it was possible for a restaurant to serve more shrimp than I could eat in one sitting, but Nance's came close. Moreover, the friendly waitresses, dressed in purple knit shirts, kept refilling our iced tea glasses without being asked. Throw in the view of the shrimp boats and the offshore traffic, and the bill of $32 was a real bargain.
I still was not sure, however, what ''Calabash-style'' seafood really meant. At a gift shop near the main highway I consulted ''The Original Calabash Cookbook'', but that did not help much. I learned that the town took its name from an Indian word, meaning gourd, and that it had once been a busy trading port for inland settlements. The book also reported a favorite legend, that a local cat had once been given by Jerome Bonaparte to his brother, Napoleon. The feline, named Calabash, had become a favorite companion of the emperor, and was, by one account, buried with his master.
Clark Callahan, the manager of the gift shop, had his own view. Calabash-style, he said, mainly means large portions. ''It's abundance,'' he said, ''normally you can't eat it all.''
Based on lunch, I knew that quantity was certainly part of the Calabash style. And on Mr. Callahan's advice, I tracked down some of the village's old-timers, in search of more answers to my question. Jo Anne Coleman, of the Seafood Hut, could not define her own style of cooking: ''All I know,'' she said, ''is that I put it in my deep fryer and cook it. We have nothing fancy here.''
But she had obviously pinpointed another element of Calabash's celebrity - its simple, relaxed atmosphere. Calabash is still a working fishing port, run by the folks who grew up in the area, and as Mrs. Coleman noted, ''My customers tell me that they come here because it's so much like it was years ago.''
Mrs. Coleman also contributed another legend: Her mother-in-law ran one of the first seafood houses in town, during the 1940's, and one of her customers was Jimmy Durante, who called her affectionately, ''Mrs. Calabash''. So when the entertainer ended his broadcasts with the wistful words, ''Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,'' he was really talking about Mrs. Coleman's mother-in-law. True or not, it's a good story.
The first visitors came to Calabash to fish or to buy fish from the local boats. The first real restaurant was opened by a local shrimper, Vester Beck, in 1940, and both Mr. Beck and his eatery are still around. He is not pleased that other purveyors in other places try to take advantage of the Calabash name. ''You only get Calabash-style in Calabash, not out of Calabash,'' he told me.
What is Calabash style? ''Most of the stuff is caught and served pretty soon,'' he answered. ''That's the main thing.''
So freshness is another key ingredient. Shrimp can only be caught in commercial quantities as far north as the Virginia line, and according to Mr. Beck, ''If you catch shrimp today, you should serve it by tomorrow night.'' The message is clear: if you want really fresh shrimp, not the kind known deceitfully as ''fresh frozen'', you have to get as close to the source as possible.
Lennon Nance and his brothers go out every day during the shrimping season, which lasts from June to November, and their catch goes directly to their restaurant. At the peak of the season, the captain concedes, the family cannot catch enough to supply the demand; but when that happens, he adds, he has enough connections with the other shrimpers to fill the gap.
Quality, then, is also part of the Calabash style, quality that only comes from a lifetime of experience. As Capt. Nance says, ''We were raised up in seafood.''
The captain's wife now runs the restaurant while he is out fishing, and his four children also work in the business. It is, simply, a family restaurant, run by a family to serve families. And in these days of fast-food mania, such places should be treated like small national treasures.
Shrimp is not the only specialty in Calabash. Vast quantities of flounder are also harvested in local waters, and if you have never eaten that fish at its peak of freshness, lightly fried and drizzled with melted butter, you are missing a treat. You are also missing a bargain, since Capt. Nance's serves a whole baby flounder for only $4.
In fact, reasonable prices are also a hallmark of the Calabash style. It is hard to spend more than $12 or $15 a person for a sumptuous meal, and while that is not competitive with fast-food outlets, I bet the children will like the food almost as well.
Finally, I think I know what Calabash-style means: generous portions, reasonable prices, fresh food, a relaxed and homey atmosphere. So simple, and yet so hard to find. No matter how many signs you see on the highways of Carolina plugging an ersatz version of Calabash cooking, you have to come to the real place for the real thing.
If you go Seafood Spots The easiest way to get to Calabash, N.C., is to drive. From Interstate 95 heading toward the South Carolina border, take the exit for U.S. 74, just below Lumberton. Follow it to the southeast until it connects with State Route 130, then head south on U.S. 17. Calabash is about a half-hour north of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Of the 32 restaurants in town, the most pleasant are along the water, including Capt. John's and the Calabash Original , as well as Capt. Nance's. The two oldest, and most authentic, are Beck's and the Seafood Hut. Do It Yourself Another alternative at Calabash is to catch your own. Three charter boats are available at a dock just down from Capt. Nance's, including the Bonito, which offers half-day trips for about $15. Tackle is included. The short trips mainly go after black bass, a delicious local fish. All-day trips head for larger quarry, including grouper and snapper. Trolling or casting from small boats also yields large catches of flounder in the rivers and inlets around Calabash. In fact, you can even catch your own shrimp.S. V. R.