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The town of Calabash doesn’t need to announce itself. It’s known near and far for its lightly battered seafood, what folks know as Calabash style. Still, a wooden sign welcomes

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The town of Calabash doesn’t need to announce itself. It’s known near and far for its lightly battered seafood, what folks know as Calabash style. Still, a wooden sign welcomes

Lightly Breaded & Perfectly Fried: The Legacy of Calabash

The town of Calabash doesn’t need to announce itself. It’s known near and far for its lightly battered seafood, what folks know as Calabash style. Still, a wooden sign welcomes travelers to the “Seafood Capital,” a claim spelled out in simple script below a painting of a trawler. A little farther down the road, Beck’s Restaurant adds emphasis. “This is it!” is written across a red arrow that protrudes from its sign. Before it was sold in 2017, a similar red arrow pointed down at Coleman’s Original with “THIS IS IT!” pronounced in all caps.

There was truth to Coleman’s quip. In 1940, the restaurant was indeed “it” — the town’s one and only, started by Lucy Coleman. Often credited as the creator of Calabash style, Coleman dredged fresh, local seafood in evaporated milk and seasoned flour before deep-frying it in a vat of lard by the Calabash River, where fishermen unloaded their catch each evening. But Coleman’s wasn’t it for long.

Coleman’s sister, Ruth Beck, also opened a restaurant in the early 1940s, frying up oysters, spot, flounder, scallops, and hush puppies using the family’s recipe. Some claim that Beck’s brick-and-mortar actually preceded Coleman’s. But it’s perhaps no matter. It was the two together that made it — meaning Calabash-style seafood — a thing. The sisters created a destination for baskets and platters that featured Brunswick County’s bounty, as well as a business model that caught on, feeding locals and tourists alike.

Editor’s Note: Ella’s had a fire in April 2023. They are currently closed with plans to rebuild.

In 1950, Coleman and Beck’s brother and sister-in-law, Lawrence and Ella High, started Ella’s of Calabash. Lawrence spent mornings fishing, then joined his family under an oak tree by the restaurant to peel shrimp and prep fish for the day’s offerings. According to the family’s tradition, his catch was also lightly breaded and quickly fried.

Calabash restaurants continued to proliferate and garner attention over the decades that followed. Word spread of the town’s fare, perhaps spurred on by radio host and comedian Jimmy Durante — a Calabash fan, according to local legend, who ended his program each night with the same line: “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” In 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported 20 restaurants for a town of just 180 residents — many of whom worked in the food or fishing industry, or both.

Fishing and frying were a way of life for many in town, including Doris and Lennon Nance. Lennon was a shrimp boat captain, and, in 1974, he opened Captain Nance’s with Doris, who oversaw the restaurant. The business is now run by Doris’s children and their spouses, including Calabash’s mayor, Donna Long. “We buy from a lot of the same people Doris started buying from way back when,” Long says. “We get our scallops from Holden Beach, oysters from Calabash.”

Continuity is key to why many folks visit Calabash season after season. There are familiar flavors and familiar faces, as several restaurants have been passed down through families. There’s continuity among the customers, too. “You might have three generations coming to eat at the restaurant,” Long says. “You become family with them; you really do.”

A Calabash brochure from 1972 (a year before the fishing village officially incorporated) invited folks to “bring the whole family and prepare to enjoy seafood as you never have before.” The pamphlet depicted eight restaurants, almost all of them housed in strikingly similar single-story buildings with wide parking lots in front. Many have now shuttered, like Calabash Seafood House, Ivey High’s Restaurant, and Thomas Seafood Restaurant. When Thomas’s opened in the mid-1950s, Ronnie and Doll Scheid fried seafood in lard. But as Doll told the Brunswick Beacon in 1988, “Now everyone worries about cholesterol, so we’ve had to change.”

These days, adaptation also means offering grilled, steamed, blackened, or sautéed seafood in addition to fried. Such shifts have helped sustain business beyond tourists, catering to the tastes of a growing population (Brunswick County saw a 27.2 percent increase between 2010 and 2020). “Used to, you had an off-season,” Long says. “Now, it’s all year ’round.” As Corey Bellamy of Beck’s observes, “We have several customers that come daily, seven days a week.” Last year, that added up to 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of shrimp sold at Beck’s alone. As for hush puppies, Bellamy can only estimate “a lot.” “They go away pretty quick,” he says.

At the height of summer, lines snake out of restaurant doors as customers wait upward of an hour for seafood. And it doesn’t matter if it’s past the palm trees at Beck’s. Or under the blue awning of Calabash Seafood Hut. Or looking out on the marsh at Dockside Seafood House or Waterfront Seafood Shack. When the wait is up and a hot plate of Calabash seafood hits the table, only three simple words will do: This is it.

This story was published on May 29, 2023

Emily Wallace

Emily Wallace is a freelance writer and illustrator with a master’s in pimento cheese. She is the art director and deputy editor of Southern Cultures, and her illustrated book Road Sides: An Illustrated Companion to Dining and Driving in the American South was published in 2019. Find more of her work at eewallace.com.