The road to the Cypress Grill, in the two-stoplight town of Jamesville, North Carolina, scurries down a sandy slope shaded by tall oaks and poplars, their branches draped with Spanish moss. You'll know quickly if you've gone too far. The asphalt dead-ends at a boat ramp, which leads to the coffee-with-cream-colored Roanoke River. Here the river flows swiftly through one of the South's largest intact bottomland forests, its banks a greening veil of cypress and tupelo gum trees.
At the intersection of the road and the river is a little shack of a place built of weathered board-and-batten cypress siding, with a tin roof and hinged shutters propped open to reveal a black placard with orange lettering: "YES we're OPEN." Seeing the sign, I breathe a sigh of relief. I'm not too late.
Whether I'm fishing for shad, paddling a back swamp or bird-nerding the Roanoke's lowlands during the spring warbler migrations, I make a stop at the Cypress Grill every chance I get. For almost 65 years now the ramshackle diner has opened its doors for a few short months, January through April, to dish up an ephemeral pleasure: river herring, netted on their spawning runs from the open Atlantic. Historically, untold legions of the fish surged up the Roanoke, Chowan, Tar-Pamlico and other eastern North Carolina rivers each spring, supporting a seasonal fishery that shipped salt-cured herring across the South and Northeast by the millions of pounds. Locals, too, flocked to the riverbanks to nail together makeshift "cook-up shacks" where the fish were fried over an open fire or a propane burner from an old tobacco-curing barn.
The foot-long river herring were an integral part of daily life. Farmers even used herring parts as fertilizer. ("When you plant yo' corn, put a herrin' to de hill / If dat don't do it, de good Lawd will," ran one line in an old fisherman's chantey.) By 1880 the Roanoke region's fishery landed tens of millions each spring, and not too many years ago you could take a washtub down to most any eastern North Carolina fish house and fill it with herring for a dollar. No longer. Pollution, overfishing and loss of spawning grounds — due to the construction of dams in the past half-century — have reduced numbers to all-time lows. These days, if you want an old-fashioned taste of herring, you head down the hill at Jamesville and hope your timing is right.
Like mine. "Oh yessir, we have herring today, sure do," Leslie Gardner tells me. He stands between shelves groaning with tea pitchers and homemade pies. The interior of the Cypress Grill is crowded, homey; the air is spiced with the scent of vinegar and fried fish. There are a half-dozen booths painted stark white and eight tables with straight-back chairs. A hand-lettered poster hawks tickets for the Jamesville EMS and Rescue Raffle. Sunlight bores in through a few knotholes in the siding.
Leslie is lean and gray-haired, with salt-and-pepper eyebrows and faded jeans held up by a belt with a 1972 Eisenhower silver dollar buckle. He and his wife, Sally, have rented and run the Cypress Grill for 27 years, bolting the doors each season in time to put in a new tobacco crop. (They decided to retire from tobacco farming a few years ago.)
Originally constructed about 1936, the building burned down in 1946 and was soon rebuilt. It may just be the only seasonal herring shack left in this part of North Carolina.
When the Gardners first took over, herring were an easy score. Each morning at first light, the Gardner boys launched their skiffs on the river to net fish before they went to school. These days, Leslie loads up his pickup truck at fish houses on the nearby Chowan River and Albemarle Sound, making the run every single day the restaurant is open.
"You know how it is," he tells me. "If I ever skipped a day, then I'd want to skip two, or three. I told myself way back that I wouldn't start that. There ain't no need to have old fish."
Especially when you need so many. On a typical day, up to 500 herring will take a hot dip at the Cypress Grill, most under the watchful eye of a short and chipper lady named Julia Price. "Other than raisin' young-uns," she says at a near-holler over the boisterous sizzle of frying fish, "I've been right here, off and on, for more than 20 years."