Alongside locally carved duck and goose decoys, a white tablecloth-covered buffet table awaits the lucky group of 200 to 300 Currituck County residents and visitors who have secured a spot
Alongside locally carved duck and goose decoys, a white tablecloth-covered buffet table awaits the lucky group of 200 to 300 Currituck County residents and visitors who have secured a spot at BJ’s Carolina Café on Thanksgiving. Silver chafing trays warm the homemade classics: glazed baked ham with raisins and pineapple, Currituck-grown collards, corn pudding, sweet potato casserole with pecans, and roasted turkey. The restaurant’s namesake, BJ Beasley, cooks 20 to 30 turkey breasts the week prior and slices them on the big day.
Wanda Midgette Beasley, BJ’s wife and current owner Benjamin Beasley’s mother, arrives at the party with a bowl of green congealed salad. Her daughter Tara, who’s waiting tables and running around the lunch and dinner spot, identifies the dish as Watergate salad, a pistachio pudding with walnuts, dried fruit, and marshmallows. Although there’s enough food laid out to feed all of Jarvisburg, Wanda brings just one bowl of her salad. “Everyone else is scared of it,” Tara says, “but the locals understand.” If that Watergate salad isn’t on the table yet, Wanda’s friends know that she’s still hard at work in her kitchen in the 1917 home next door to the restaurant, putting the finishing touches on her holiday specialty. She’ll be over any minute, Tara and Benjamin assure them.
The buffet is held in the restaurant’s main dining room as well as the attached Currituck Room, an extra space that serves many purposes: a community table for holiday gatherings; an air-conditioned respite for Benjamin’s goldendoodle, Molly, and BJ’s dog, Mr. Tyler (named for their best customer); and a time capsule of Currituck County. The walls are covered with mementos from a family so deeply tied to this land that their history is Currituck’s history. There’s a photo of Benjamin’s great-grandfather tying a line to a duck decoy. There’s BJ’s captain’s license from his days as a duck hunting guide before he opened BJ’s Carolina Café and eventually sold it to his son. There’s a painting of Poplar Branch, where BJ would take Benjamin duck hunting in his handmade skiff. There are prints of hand-drawn maps that Benjamin’s uncle would use while navigating out on the water.
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Thanksgiving looked a lot different for the Beasleys before BJ bought and opened the restaurant, originally calling it BJ’s Barbecue. He and Wanda, a retired schoolteacher, are from the area and met because, as Benjamin puts it, “there weren’t that many people in Currituck back then.” They raised their two children at Point Harbor, located just before the beach, a few miles from the restaurant they’d soon own. Benjamin and Tara remember coming to Jarvisburg Junction, the breakfast spot that once occupied the same building, before school with their mom on mornings when there was a fog or snow delay.
Every Thanksgiving morning, before the sun rose, they would take two skiffs — one full of family and the other full of decoys — out from Poplar Branch and up through the Lone Oak Channel, until they found their favorite grassy hunting spot between Bay Tree and North Burris’s Island. “Freezing,” Benjamin says, laughing. “All I remember was freezing. It was always so cold.” After the decoys were scattered and the sun teased its arrival, BJ would hook up a propane tank to the gas stove and oven that he’d installed in his duck blind and make biscuits, sausages, and eggs to warm up his fellow hunters. “You can’t have a biscuit until after you shoot your first duck. You gotta get the skunk out before you can have your breakfast,” Benjamin says. “Sometimes that rule got broken because there were no ducks to be shot.” On especially cold days, it wasn’t unusual to see a bottle of peach schnapps get passed around, you know, “to keep your toes warm,” Benjamin says.
Although there hasn’t been one of these hunts in some time — at a family-owned place like BJ’s, that would require giving the whole staff a day off — duck hunting is still a part of their lives. Guides who lead hunts often suggest that their clients stop at the place with the green smokers out front. BJ painted his smokers green because that was the only heat-resistant paint he could find, but they’ve become a distinctive marker for people driving to or from the beach.
In the early afternoon, Benjamin and Tara often greet men clad in mud-covered boots and overalls, hungry for Brunswick stew, wings, barbecue, or a rib eye. The siblings have learned over the years that the louder the table, the more successful the hunt. Although the Beasleys haven’t been out on their own family Thanksgiving hunt for years, Benjamin and Tara are open to the idea. After all, their dad keeps a trailer full of decoys behind the restaurant, just in case.