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From Sound to Sea

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From Sound to Sea
Photos by Keith Lanpher

CHEFS BILL SMITH AND SAM MCGANN JOIN UP FOR A BEACHSIDE FEAST ON THE OUTER BANKS

The barrier islands that form the Outer Banks of North Carolina dangle so far out into the Atlantic you’d swear they were asking for trouble. And they do get it, from time to time, residents weathering the occasional hurricane swept up the East Coast along the Gulf Stream, surfers riding the aggressive swells, families of deer huddling patiently under houses. If the weather is fierce enough, inlets can appear overnight as the ocean bifurcates an island. Or shifting sands can fill in a waterway, creating land where there was none before. This is, after all, a giant undulating sandbar, one that offers both protection for the mainland and escape from it. A sandbar endowed with wild beauty, a rich history, incredibly fresh food, and allure for millions.

To get to the Outer Banks you’ve got to want to get there. You drive, and then drive some more. Past vast fields dotted with solitary farmhouses. Past weathered old tobacco barns and little white churches dating to the late-1700s. Past the remnants of former houses, splintered like a game of life-sized Pick-Up Sticks, some overtaken by vines. Past lone fishermen and hand-painted signs for boiled peanuts, past lone American flags leaning off fenceposts, past rusted grain silos and maritime forests with blackwater swamps. This is eastern North Carolina: windswept, low-lying farm country. The sky expands in your peripheral vision and instinctively you know you are on your way to the edge of something. You dodge the occasional turtle and say a prayer for the rest of its quixotic crossing. A bald eagle passes directly above you.

Then it’s over a seemingly endless bridge across the Currituck Sound, and you have officially detached from the mainland. Seagulls seem suspended in mid-air, flying against the wind. Massive sand dunes appear in the distance, the largest on the East Coast. You have arrived on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Chef Bill Smith’s Island Roots

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Chef Bill Smith knows these islands intimately. Not only has he been vacationing here his whole life, but his blood ties run deep. His great-great-great-grandmother (“Grandma Angel”) settled here from points north, a fiercely opinionated abolitionist who took the son of a freed slave under her wing and went so far as to legally adopt him in order to leave her Outer Banks property to him. Tom is buried on the island.

Then there was his great-grandmother Inez who was raised in a lighthouse here called Oliver’s Reef. Inez lived to be 97 and cooked large noonday dinners for the extended family well into her nineties. Smith credits her with laying the foundation for his interest in food. Inez would often trick family into eating something unusual by insisting it was something familiar. To get them to eat tripe, she called it fish. Smith never would have swallowed it if he knew it was stomach lining. Inez had launched the curious palate of a future chef.

“Everybody in our family lives to be a million,” laughs Smith. Inez claimed to have seen Halley’s Comet three times. It is indeed conceivable that she saw it twice.

Smith, his sister Debbi, and gaggles of his extended multi-generational family grew up nearby in coastal New Bern, North Carolina, but continued to vacation on the Outer Banks. Days were spent crabbing using chicken-neck lures. Nights often involved gigging for flounder, heading out in a flat-bottomed boat, then jumping out to wade with Coleman pump-lanterns while Aunt Theresa sipped her cocktail in the boat. Moonlit nights saw encounters with friendly local red foxes or sea turtles digging holes on the beach to lay their eggs.

Much has changed here since Smith’s childhood, when the family had to bring their own groceries to the beach from the mainland and sheets for the cottages. Back then, telephones on the islands were rare amenities. Very slowly, over the years, an ACE Hardware store opened, then a Food Lion. In the past twenty-five years, the northern section of the island chain has exploded with development, much of it tasteful, but there is one commercial section of Kill Devil Hills that residents refer to as “French Fry Alley” where older bait shops intermingle with new Go-Kart Raceways and pirate-themed putt-putt golf courses. Smith avoids this section, preferring the wilder beaches of Hatteras or Ocracoke.

 A Tasty Invitation

On this particular weekend, Smith is here to relax and to cook with his friend and fellow chef Sam McGann and McGann’s wife, Cindy, full-time residents of the island. Sam McGann co-owns with his high school buddy John Power The Blue Point restaurant, a popular local eatery situated smack on the waters of the vast sound in a town called Duck. A pair of ospreys nest just outside. The McGanns are hosting Smith, whom they met at a Southern Foodways Alliance event a while back, for a little beachside R&R. And some cooking.

Friday night kicks off at The Blue Point with a feast: ginger Hoisin BBQ ribs with kimchee and smoked peanuts, crispy fried duck eggs with pork belly hash and fresh herbs, pan-seared trout from the mountains of western North Carolina with a lemon dill buttermilk crème fraîche, and “sugar toads” (a.k.a. puffer fish). McGann and Smith enjoy something that chefs rarely get to do: they sit and eat, and someone else cooks (in this case, McGann’s sous chefs Nicole Roux and Dave McClary).

It is the perfect start to a relaxing beach escape, but first Smith needs to address a crisis in his home kitchen, the quirky Chapel Hill darling Crook’s Corner, dubbed by The New York Times “sacred ground for Southern foodies.” The day before, NPR had run a segment on All Things Considered about Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie. The airing caused such a massive stampede to his restaurant that Smith’s cellphone keeps ringing with frantic calls from his staff (whom he affectionately calls his “doll babies”) about an imminent pie-shortage crisis. His pastry chef Neema is busy making communion wafers for her church, so the restaurant is in a pickle. Ultimately, with Smith’s help and a few calls, the crisis is diverted. Neema volunteers to bake the pies in the early-morning hours in plenty of time for the next day’s pie siege. Smith is finally able to fully relax and enjoy bites of pecan pie with Kentucky bourbon ice cream, banana pudding, and lemon chess pie.

The friends roll themselves out of The Blue Point and sleep comes quickly. A gentle rain and the roar of crashing waves serves as a lullaby of sorts.

From Farmers to Fishermen

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Saturday morning, fueled with coffee from a funky little java shop called Duck’s Cottage, the chefs head over to Grandy Greenhouse & Farm Market to pick their produce. Allie and Colin Grandy grow their own tomatoes and figs and co-op everything else with local and regional farmers—purple-tipped asparagus; strawberries; May peas; field peas such as pink eyes, crowder, and white acres; butter beans; super sweet corn; large and small heirloom tomatoes; summer squashes; blackberries; blueberries; cherries; watermelon; cantaloupe; South Carolina peaches and figs; and fresh pressed apple cider and peach cider. It is a little early in the season, but the chefs leave with a basket full of goodies.

They then head down to Manteo to select fresh catch at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co., where they get an earful from vice president Mark Vrablic about the challenges facing the local fishing industry. The chefs listen intently as Vrablic explains that beach erosion is filling up the channels. Whether you blame it on storms or the seven million pairs of feet walking the beaches every summer, the fact is that the sand is migrating. “And it’s not going up,” says Vrablic with a wry smirk. Environmentalists are concerned with the effects of potential dredging or jetties, and politicians balk at the multi-million-dollar price tag to shore up the channels. The fishermen are caught in the middle, their boats drawing too much water and insurance companies threatening to drop coverage. It’s a real dilemma, and one that needs to be resolved if Outer Banks visitors wish to continue dining on fresh local seafood.

“They got rid of tobacco in North Carolina because it’s bad for you,” notes McGann, “and here these fishermen are trying to catch a food that’s good for you but facing regulatory challenges at every turn.” He may also be referring to the fact that local fishermen dutifully obey catch limits and fishing zones, while international boats scoop up every fish imaginable just a half mile farther out. It is but one of many insults to the local fishing industry.

Smith and McGann pay their respects to the fishermen and to towering fishmonger Jay Ross, select some flounder, crab, and tuna for the evening meal, and head back toward Duck for the prep. The car flies by bushes of myrtle and laurel sculpted by coastal winds. Smith points out a shrub called a yaupon whose leaves can be made into tea. “Grandmother and I did it one time. We toasted the leaves first. But the berries are poisonous, not so much that you die but they’ll make you sick. The colonists called it ‘vomiting holly.’ I’ve always wanted to get the leaves and make tea and then make sorbet out of it, not the berries, of course, just so I can tell people afterwards that they just had ‘vomiting holly sorbet’ and see how they react,” he says with a chuckle.

It may be Smith’s mischievous sense of humor that makes him so adorable and adored (he’s a minor celebrity in these parts). His friend Sheri Castle once said, “The incredible thing about Bill Smith is that there isn’t a single person out there who’s met him who doesn’t like him or who has anything negative to say about him. That’s really rare!” And what’s not to like? He dotes on his staff, prefers Pabst Blue Ribbon to microbrews, bikes to work in his faded red Converse high-tops, and extracts honeysuckle essence for his summer sorbet. He’s a doll baby.

Chop! Chop!

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Back at the beach house, Smith and McGann work their magic, chopping and dicing and firing up the grill as guests arrive. McGann’s partner John Power offers him some “wink water.” The next time someone hands you a cup of something and winks, just trust and accept it, and you will be happy you did.

McGann turns to Smith, “What can I do next? I’ll get you a PBR.”

“Now you’re talkin’!” Smith replies.

The beachside meal comes together perfectly, with the sun hanging low in the sky. Everyone takes their seats and tucks in their napkin bibs to enjoy Smith’s crab stew. Conversation is peppered with Outer Banks memories. Of wild horses walking through the automatic doors of shopping centers (before they were corralled to the northern end of the islands for their own safety). Of the hardy old souls down on Hatteras Island whose ancestors fell off a ship centuries ago in a very bad storm and swam ashore, their modern-day descendants still speaking in a vaguely Elizabethan tongue. Of tundra swans crossing paths with ospreys on their annual migrations. Of ancient tree stumps appearing on the beach in wintertime, exposed by the force of the wind. Of the local man who provides duck eggs to McGann and moonlights as a wood chopper and Chihuahua breeder. Of Smith’s Aunt Theresa who was convinced that anyone who lived north of North Carolina was a “Damn Yankee” (“despite the fact that the capital of the Confederacy was in Virginia!” laughed Smith). Of hurricanes and nor’easters and affection for extreme weather, both tempestuous and picture-perfect.

Everyone present is here because they love these islands. And what better tribute to the wild Outer Banks than to savor a meal showcasing the ingredients and foodways of sand, soil, and sea? Smith toasts the group with a raised PBR. His sister Debbi pipes in, “Mama always told me, ‘Enjoy it now  because the Outer Banks won’t be here anymore when you turn a hundred.’”

Let’s hope these sandbars hold on a little longer than that.