Calabash: The Seafood Capital of the World

For Weekly SurgeApril 29, 2010 

Most Grand Strand locals know Calabash as both a town and a style of seafood that has been synonymous with our area for decades. If you are like me, you are more familiar with the seafood than the town. I recently found that this is a tragic trend for the local population. Calabash, N.C. is rich in culinary history and with more than 30 restaurants in town it is worth the short ride across the border to enjoy some of the best food in our area.

How exactly does a small fishing village become known as "The Seafood Capital of the World?"

In the 1930s two families, the Becks and the Colemans, began so-called "fish camps" that were held outdoors serving oysters, shrimp and fish. It was a communal gathering with food that came straight from the docks. There is much debate as to which fish camp opened first, but, at this point in time, it's a small detail that isn't gravely important. In 1940, both families moved the service indoors and added the famous fried style of seafood that, ultimately, became the signature of Calabash. This style of cooking brought the local food to the limelight by using corn meal instead of flour to batter and fry seafood. The flavor was very much the first reason for the fame. There is no doubt that entertainer Jimmy Durante helped the cause as well by closing his radio show with "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are" each night. This was his little tribute to Lucy Coleman with whom he visited at her family restaurant. By the 1960s, other restaurants had opened to meet the demand of tourists who were flocking from Myrtle Beach to eat the Calabash-style seafood. As word spread beyond our area, the fame of the local cuisine began to take on its own persona. Many restaurants across the South started advertising "Calabash-style Seafood" in the hopes of capitalizing on the namesake. Capitalize they did.

Today, the town of Calabash hasn't let the notoriety go to its head as it still maintains the same fishing village charm. While both Coleman's Original Calabash Seafood Restaurant and Beck's Restaurant of Calabash are still in business and going strong, there are others that have strong historical ties and also bring more mouth-watering excitement to the town.

Ella's of Calabash isn't a newcomer to Calabash cuisine unless you compare it to Beck's or Coleman's. It was opened in 1950 by Lawrence High and Ella High and has been holding its own ever since. Many people will inspirationally quote "do one thing and do it better than anyone else." Apparently, Ella's heeded the advice and applied the theory to its Calabash cuisine. Gaining a place on Southern Living's Favorites list and being voted "Best Seafood in Brunswick County" in 2008. The prices are modest, but the portions are not. It's simple and relaxed just as the old Calabash restaurants were more than a half century ago.

The Boundary House was a place of commune for travelers as early as the 1740s in Calabash. Receiving its name due to it sitting on the boundary line of two provinces in those days, The Boundary House was a stopping point for many English travelers and even a few settlers. It also was the place for many sermons, gatherings and even a famous duel involving the governor of North Carolina. Although it faded from existence in the very early 20th Century, I think it is safe to conclude that it was the fist place that made Calabash a stopping point for many people. Given the history, it is no surprise that The Boundary House Restaurant at Callahan's shares some of the same virtues as the original a few centuries ago. Sermons and duels, however, were left off the menu for today's patrons, but serving the traditional Calabash seafood is only the beginning for this staple eatery, as there's also nice options of beef, pasta and chicken. The purpose is still fresh, fried seafood, but given the health conscious times, you get plenty of choices beyond what you may expect. Although it is one of the newer buildings in Calabash, that doesn't take away the sense of food history that this restaurant and the town adores.

Calabash will always be the best place to get the world famous crispy, fresh seafood. The town boasts about one restaurant per every 10 residents, so there are plenty of variations to choose from and everyone claims to the best. If you want to get away from the bright lights and crowded restaurants of Myrtle Beach for a night, Calabash is an ideal stop. You feel like everyone knows each other and that the food is made with careful hands in every restaurant. These are things that budgets and funding don't provide. These are the things that only a whole town's love for food can instill. "Goodnight Mrs. Calabash. Wherever you are."

Cheers!

Kevin Hoover, a local food and beverage manager, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com.

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