It takes a certain alchemy to turn an overgrown, bony sardine into a regional icon, and Julia is happy to play sorceress. First, she explains, notches are slashed into the fish, perpendicular to the backbone. The cuts let the hot oil bubble deep into the flesh, softening the herring's bones. Some folks request fish barely fried — this is called "sunny-side up" — so that the skin can be scraped away to reveal the flesh beneath. But far more ask for their order "cremated," cooked so long that the fish turns a deep chestnut brown, and hardens up so you can eat one like a cob of corn, bones and all. "They want it burnt slap up to cracklins," Julia says, with a can-you-believe-it look on her face. "It don't matter to me, though. I don't eat the things, anyway."
Just then, waitress Linda Perry sticks her head through the order window. She's laughing hard and holding an order ticket. "Fellow out here says he wants his herring 'a total loss,'" she says. "Wants 'em brickbat hard." Julia grins, and scoops three freshly fried fish back into the pans. "Brickbat hard, huh? Well, we'll see about that!"
To be sure, river herring are an acquired taste. And for many Cypress Grill regulars, it's a taste acquired during a time now past, and every bite of fish evokes an era when these silvery harbingers of spring were counted on to keep a belly full. This has always been a poor region. For the first half of the 20th century, tenant farming and sharecropping made cash money hard to come by. As late as 1943, less than 35 percent of the region's farms had electricity, and without refrigeration, fresh meat was only an occasional pleasure. It wasn't unusual for salt-cured herring to find its way to the plate three times a day. "Fish and collards," grimaces Sally. "That's what people lived on."
"Tiny" Harrison remembers. She's sitting in a window booth with two friends who drove her here from a nearby rest home. Born near James- ville in 1909, she dresses in Sunday go-to-meeting clothes for her annual pilgrimage to the Cypress Grill. "We stored our fish out in the smokehouse, with tins of lard and sausages hanging off the rafters," she recalls. "To me, it's a real taste of home."
I take a booth across from Tiny, with a view of the river. My plate comes heaped with herring and tubular sacks of herring roe, rolled in cornmeal and fried. When I pick up knife and fork, Tiny gives me a quizzical look. "No, no," she reminds me, "with your fingers."
Of course. How silly of me. I pick up a fish, forked tail between thumb and forefinger. Sheathed in cornmeal, the herring is steaming hot, and I have to hold the first few bites between my teeth for a few seconds. No one ever mistook river herring for chicken. Fresh from the pan, each bite has a smoky punch, an unrepentant flavor of fish. I savor each mouthful. I may not know what it feels like to watch net corks bob and dance in the river current, or to fill a crock with fish and salt. But for the moment, I can taste the brine of the sea, the salt of toil, the urgency of rivers pregnant with spring rains, in the satisfying crunch of a not-quite-cremated herring.
When Leslie stops by my table, I ask him about the most herring he's seen one customer eat. There's one lady, he says, that eats 10 or 12 at a time — "and she's no big girl, either." For years Mort Hurst, a local county commissioner and noted big eater, asked Leslie if he might eat all he could for a fixed cost. "But he's the collard-eatin' king of the world," Leslie tells me. "Set a world record for eating Moon Pies. We won't let him do it. He'd just stick us."
People love their herring, I say, and Leslie just grins. "Shore do." Like this one fella, he recalls, who came in for supper just before he was scheduled for heart surgery. "He wanted a good fill of herrings before he went into the hospital," Leslie explains, "and it just so happened that we ran short. He made a horrible ruckus, hollering and yelling. I felt right sorry for him, I did. He told me, 'Mister, if I wasn't in the condition I'm in, I would fight you.' I could see why he needed a heart operation."
Leslie fills my cup with iced tea, and when I ask him how things have changed over the past 50 years, he has to think for a moment. Instead of hog lard, the fish are fried in heart-healthier vegetable oil, he tells me. The previous proprietor poured a concrete floor over the old sawdust one, and Leslie himself installed an automatic fish scaler about 20 years ago. "But we've tried not to get real modern."
Before I head out the door, I amble over to a table where Sally introduces me to Mack and Dona Smith?"Some real herring eaters," she says. The Smiths are polishing off a half-dozen fish, and pondering pie. For the past ten years they've made the 45-minute drive from their home to the Cypress Grill every Friday night the place is open. "Every Friday night," Mack says, proudly, holding a half-eaten herring with two hands. He's a trim fellow in a crisp shirt, and he can, in fact, recall the only two Fridays he and Dona missed their appointed hour. In March of 1994, Dona had neck surgery and couldn't make the trip. "But we didn't go without, we still ate herring," he says with a resolute nod. "It just so happened that the local fire department had a few."