Meet Calabash and you're meeting a fine fried seafood meal.
There's a little fishing village town called Calabash, N.C., that sits on an inlet right at the point where the border between North and South Carolina meets the ocean. It’s a quaint fishing village — there are 2,146 full-time residents and the only real industry, besides tourism in the summers, is fishing and shrimping. The people of Calabash have a daily routine familiar to residents of similar towns that dot the ports and inlets of coastal Carolina: every morning a dozen or so boats make for open water and by about 4 o’clock they’re back at the dock unloading the day’s catch.
You can find great fresh seafood in any of those Carolina fishing communities and you can usually buy it straight off the boat at semi-permanent dockside stands or prepared at one or two local seafood eateries. This is where Calabash deviates from the typical Carolina fishing town.
In Calabash, there’s roughly one great seafood restaurant for every 25 residents. To say that seafood is important in Calabash would be a massive understatement. It’s definitive of the town, so much so that there are hundreds of seafood joints across the Carolinas and beyond that boast “Calabash-style” fried seafood.
Calabash-style has its roots in the impromptu, unorganized oyster roasts common in Calabash and other coastal Carolina towns in the 1930s. Often those roasts centered around a sermon from a visiting minister, a holiday or the opening (June) or closing (November) of fishing season. However, in 1940, Lucy Coleman, a local from a long-time restaurant family, formalized the oyster roast by building a small pavilion with picnic tables, only steps away from the docks. She soon started preparing seafood the way her family had done for years: dipping fish and shrimp in milk, sprinkling it with flour and lightly dredging it in cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper.
Then into the fryer it went for about two minutes. The whole process was very light-handed, allowing the real flavors and textures of the fish and shrimp to shine. In true “Calabash-style” seafood, it’s about the fish, not the batter.
Lucy’s eatery, dubbed Coleman’s Original, became the place to eat in Calabash. With her sister, Ruth, opening Beck’s a few months later and then their brother opening the doors to Ella’s of Calabash in 1950, the family established a seafood tradition that would spread across the nation. Today, you can find hundreds of restaurants that boast “Calabash-style” seafood in the Carolinas and a few outposts as far away as California. Some are good, but most are Calabash in name only.
The foodies at Old Carolina are serious when it comes to tradition and authenticity—at Old Carolina, we faithfully observe Carolina culinary traditions, and you can count on us to bring the experience of true Calabash seafood to your town.
“Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”
Beginning in the mid-1940s, singer, actor and comedian Jimmy Durante used the catchphrase “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” to sign off his radio and television shows. A popular theory as to the origin of the phrase was that Durante was so taken with the delicious seafood and hospitality at a Calabash seafood restaurant during a visit there that he told the owner (Lucy Coleman?) that he would make her famous one day. Not knowing her name, Durante simply called her Mrs. Calabash.
The real story is just as touching: Durante confirmed in 1966 that he and his late wife, Jeanne, had stopped in Calabash, N.C., during a road trip sometime in the 1930s. She was so taken with the town and the people there that Durante promised to ‘buy the town’ for her once he finally made it big. He started referring to her by the pet name ‘Mrs. Calabash.’ Jeanne died in 1943 and as a tribute, Durante closed all of his shows with goodnight wishes to his wife, wherever she was.
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