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The Last Herring Shack

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The Last Herring Shack
By Dan Huntley / Photo by Bob Leverone

Each Year in Late Winter, The Cypress Grill Opens its Doors to Floods of Loyal Customers in Rural Eastern North Carolina

In Jamesville, North Carolina, population 502, the Cypress Grill is the last of its kind—a fish fry shack built on a riverbank and only open the four months of the late-winter spawning season.

Surrounded by Spanish moss and towering oaks, the Cypress was built in 1936 on a sandy hillside not twenty feet from the Roanoke River. Depression-era farmers would take time before spring planting to haul seine nets across the river and harvest thousand-pound catches of river herring that would thrash and strain their nets like an anaconda. The remnants of a commercial fishery are visible across the football field-wide river from the Cypress. Before refrigeration, up to 3 million pounds of herring annually were packed in salt barrels and shipped across the eastern states. The Cypress started as little more than a clapboard shed, or “cook-up shack”, with a sawdust floor for the fisherman to get out of the cold and fry up a “mess” of herring—with a side of “Roanoke bacon” (an egg roe sack dusted in corn meal and fried to caramel perfection).

After a grease fire in 1946, the Cypress was rebuilt with the same weathered gray cypress planks cut from the nearby bottomland forest. Other than a hardwood floor, electricity, and running water, the place hasn’t changed much in the ensuing eighty years.

“We’ve never been fancy out here by the river,” says Leslie Gardner, who ran the place for twenty-seven years with his wife, Sandy, before retiring several years ago. “Folks say it’s down-home, but it’s just the way we do it ’round here. Get the freshest fish we can and fry it up crispy.”

Now their daughter, Kathy Davis, runs the place with other family members.

“I guess you could say it’s family tradition, it’s about all I’ve ever done—besides raise a family and farm,” says Kathy Davis as she rings up a customer. “Glad y’all liked it, come back now anytime.”

The grill is dark, cheery, and warm with a winter wind blowing off the water and gently beating at the back door. If the signature of a hearty Chateauneuf-du-Pape is its earthy terroir, then the Cypress is true to its eastern Carolina coastal roots. The best-selling meal is hearty but working-man plain: boiled potatoes, hush puppies, cole slaw, and a deep-fried ten-inch herring just this side of burnt.

“That’s how folks like ’em, just about burned, we call it ‘cremated,’” says Davis with a smile as she wipes down a blue-checkered tablecloth.

The Cypress also serves catfish, striped bass, flounder, oysters, and perch. And for dessert, there is a one-of-a-kind handmade wooden pie safe of homemade lemon, coconut, and chocolate pies.

But make no mistake about it: it’s the fried herring that keeps the place in business.

“I’ve been eating here for several years now. I always get the fried herring,” says Steve Hight of Raleigh, who recently stopped by on his way to a business meeting in Elizabeth City. “Just walking in here down by the river you get a strong sense of place, it harkens back to an earlier era. I love it here, it’s like stepping back in time.”

River herrings are like large bony sardines. The cooks at the Cypress deeply cut three to four slashes along the sides of the fish so the hot oil can penetrate and “soften” the tiny bones, which most people eat along with the meat (except the ribs and backbone).

But some customers order the herring “sunny side up,” barely fried, and then they scrape away the skin and eat the sweet, tender meat between the bones. On a good night, the grill will fry up to 500 herrings. The fish are brought in daily and cleaned in a fish shed behind the restaurant—Gardner even built an automatic fish scaler from a converted fifty-five-gallon barrel.

“People drive from Raleigh and Rocky Mount and that’s what they want—the herring. It reminds them of the old days,” Davis says, sitting down in a booth after a lunch service that included two buses of elderly church members. “Back when what you caught out of the river helped keep you alive, particularly in the wintertime.”

Dan and Gail Spruill of Pea Ridge, North Carolina, drove their family nearly fifty miles to eat at the Cypress. They’ve been coming since the late 1990s.

“This ain’t like no franchise restaurant, this is authentic and unique eastern North Carolina seafood,” says Dan Spruill. “I like my herring cremated like about everybody else, but I also like the shrimp and oysters. I think the seafood here is better than most places I’ve eaten at the coast.”

River herring, Alosa pseudoharengus, is a collective term for blueback herring and alewives. The fish are torpedo shaped, eight to ten inches long, and weigh less than three quarters of a pound. The fish are anadromous like salmon, living their lives at sea—migrating as far north as Labrador in the summer but returning to spawn in Carolina coastal rivers such as the Roanoke, Chowan, Tar-Pamlico, and Cooper.

Although rivers like the Roanoke used to produce late-winter harvests of tens of millions of pounds of river herring, the population has suffered immensely from pollution, dams, overfishing, and loss of habitat. River herrings are also prime forage for popular game fish such as striped bass. Several southeastern states have put severe restrictions on herring harvesting and fishing. Although the Cypress once harvested all they could gather in front of their restaurant, Davis says those days are long gone. For the last several years what herring they can buy through area fish houses are from a small harvest in South Carolina.

“I keep saying this might be the last year, but after the holidays and into January, it just seems I’ve got it in my blood,” Davis says as a fishmonger brings in two large coolers of fish. “As long as we can keep getting enough herring, I’ll keep the doors open.”

Get your herring fix

The Cypress Grill is open for lunch and dinner from early January through mid-April.
Hours vary; diners are advised to call ahead.
252-792-4175 / 1520 Stewart Street, Jamesville, North Carolina

By Dan Huntley / Photo by Bob Leverone
Photo by Bob Leverone