Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Ode to the Crab Shack
by Pamela Duncan
Due south of Morehead City, North Carolina, just across Bogue Sound, sits a thirtymile strip of sand called Bogue Banks, part of a chain of barrier islands making up the Southern Outer Banks. It’s better known to beach-lovers as Atlantic Beach, if you’re heading to the Eastern end, or Emerald Isle, if you’re going to the Western end. In the middle are the towns of Pine Knoll Shores and Indian Beach, and the unincorporated community of Salter Path.
Every September, at the height of hurricane season, my girlfriends and I go to Emerald Isle for two weeks at the beach, and there have been times the weather wasn’t the only volatile element. Five middle-aged women in the same house for two weeks – talk about scary. Which is why we have the Beach Rules: No men, no kids, no pets, no diets, and everybody takes their medication.
Of course, the “no diets” rule isn’t really necessary. It’s a given that at the beach we eat with reckless abandon, starting right down the road in Salter Path. Vacation cannot officially begin until we sit down in front of hush puppies and sweet tea at The Crab Shack and watch the sun set over Bogue Sound. There is nothing like the comfort of this down home fish camp for easing into the rhythm of life at the beach. We always go at least twice, usually more. But in 2005, Hurricane Ophelia not only cut our vacation short, it destroyed our favorite restaurant.
Without the big sign by the main road, most people would probably pass by The Crab Shack. It’s a small, one-story building tucked in between Homer Smith’s Seafood and Willis’s Seafood Market, right on Bogue Sound across the sandy parking lot from Salter Path Methodist Church. Inside, the dining room has windows on three walls, all with gorgeous views of the wide waters of the sound.
When Ophelia came, she tore off the back side of the restaurant and flooded the whole place. “It just beat us and beat us and beat us,” says Lori Garner. Her boyfriend, Vernon Guthrie, owns The Crab Shack. Like many island people, the Guthries make their living, one way and another, from the water. The family originally came from Diamond City, a whaling community on Shackleford Banks, but Diamond is long gone and the Guthries have been in Salter Path for generations. Until 1976, Vernon was a fisherman like his daddy and granddaddy before him, and The Crab Shack was a seafood market. But when, as Vernon puts it, “seafood started going down so bad,” he and his mother, Rita Willis Guthrie, a Harker’s Island girl, decided to switch from catching to cooking.
In the early days The Crab Shack served steamed crabs and shrimp, the food most requested by weekend fishermen, but over time they added fried and grilled seafood, steaks, sandwiches, and beer and wine to the menu. Vernon’s mother supplied cooking know-how and recipes, including the secret recipe for the world’s best hushpuppies. “All I can tell you is there’s a lot of sugar in them,” Vernon said, “so they’re fattening.” Fattening, yes, but irresistible. If somebody were to analyze my cellulite, I don't doubt they’d find the secret hushpuppy recipe floating around in there.
Famous visitors to The Crab Shack include former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, and former NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who loved the steamed crabs so much he had them delivered to Raleigh if he couldn’t come himself. But it’s really a place for regular folks, for families. Locals and tourists eat together and often the only way to tell the difference is by sunburns and accents.
Ophelia wasn’t the first storm to rip into The Crab Shack, and it probably won’t be the last, but Vernon and his two sons rebuilt yet again, because, as he said, “One more time ain’t going to hurt.” The new place is pretty much identical to the original, right down to the pictures and knick-knacks on the walls, which Lori rescued before Ophelia could take them.
I remember two of these exhibits in particular: a photo of an old lady sitting up in bed, and a flower arrangement from a grave. The old lady is Alice Green Hoffman, a rich relation of Teddy Roosevelt; she once owned Salter Path. The flowers are from the grave of Vernon’s brother, Captain Buck. Though Alice is not kin, Vernon says she’s a part of their history, same as Buck. History still matters in Salter Path, which may explain why Vernon keeps turning down big-dollar offers for his property. There may come a time when storms, or taxes, change his mind, but for right now, come hell or high water, the Guthries and The Crab Shack ain’t going nowhere.
(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. Visit her website at http://www.pameladuncan.com/.)