The Cypress Grill

At a seasonal herring shack in North Carolina, the house specialty evokes memories of an earlier era

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."

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."

As long as herring are still around, he tells me, "we'll eat our share," and in his voice I sense the fear of a fishless Friday. "Sometimes we almost get to the point where we want to come in the middle of the week, but we don't. Looking forward to it just makes these fish better."

That, I figure, and looking back.

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