I first encountered calabash in western North Carolina. I worked part-time in politics, and so split my time between Calabash houses and barbecue joints. The prevalence of deviled crabs in the mountains is astounding.
But Calabash’s dominion apparently reaches much further west than south. When I mentioned to a friend here that I’d probably manage a Calabash supper on a Myrtle Beach outing, she didn’t have a clue what I meant (Hold your outrage: She’s only lived here a few years, and the southernmost Calabash restaurant I can find in South Carolina is in Surfside Beach.)
As I tried to explain it to her, I realized I wasn’t entirely sure either. Is the Calabash style characterized by its seasoning? The makeup of its breading? Or the oil in which it’s fried? I figured if I couldn’t win every miniature golf game in Myrtle, I could at least use the trip to quell my Calabash curiosity.
According to the menu at Ella’s, one of the original seafood restaurants in Calabash, N.C., calabash seafood is lightly breaded, then fried in low-fat, low-cholesterol oil. But even Ella’s own staffers don’t buy into that definition. Our server, who’d clearly spent decades ferrying fried shrimp, clams and flounder across the dining room, initially told us she had no idea how to define Calabash. Finally, she ventured that Calabash seafood is seafood eaten in Calabash.
Her judgment is pretty close to the official line. A promotional video for Brunswick County proclaims, “Restaurants in other places have tried to copy it, but the only place to get true Calabash seafood is Calabash.”
Mitzi York, executive director of the Brunswick Co. Tourism Development Authority, later told me she defines “true Calabash seafood” as “just lightly-breaded seafood and large helpings” – then she quickly ended our conversation with an offer to forward me the video.
The video doesn’t mention seafood sourcing or cornmeal, which sometimes surfaces in online discussions of the genre, but it features Mike Frink of Captain John’s Seafood House describing Calabash as “very lightly breaded (and) served up in generous portions.” Quantity, it seems, is perhaps the best indicator of authentic Calabash.
There are certainly intangibles surrounding the category: An Our State story devoted to the topic not-very-helpfully concluded, “Calabash is a style. It’s a way of living that holds tradition close. It’s a way of …eating, sharing, and drawing close to one another.” But, mostly, Calabash means abundant seafood, accompanied by hush puppies and cole slaw.
Price is a critical factor, too. When I put the question of Calabash’s definition to Twitter, the Wilmington Star-News’ food writer, Paul Stephen, responded, “Sadly, these days it’s mostly defined by a menu of imported fish with a $2 upcharge for broiled.” Calabash is supposed to be local and cheap, but the latter attribute has lately eclipsed the former.
So if Calabash is just piles of lightly-breaded seafood — served with the right sides and sold for the right price – why is Calabash “the only place to get true Calabash seafood”? Perhaps Calabash is best defined as an unshakeable faith in the seaside town’s superiority. Pass the cocktail sauce.