Whelk fritters, and remembering Sapelo Island

 

Whelk fritters recipe way at the end, after we head down south Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast, but first…

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Moving woodpiles: do we really have to?

Chances are pretty good you have stacks of firewood or stovewood, and maybe you have stacks in different places – on pallets, in a woodshed or a corner of a barn. You also know it’s wise to rotate your stock, so that the stuff that’s two or three years old gets used before the new stuff that’s about to be delivered. So, you don’t want the old stuff under cover to be blocked by the new stuff coming in, meaning you have to move it. This is a chore that’s necessary, but should be completely unnecessary, if you organize your stacks properly to begin with. Well, we haven’t figured out how to do that with the little woodshed we have, and so every couple of years we have to shlep the old stuff out of the shed onto pallets in the back yard to make way for the new stuff coming in. We load up the back of our Honda Fit hatchback until the rear shocks are compressed to nothing, drive fifty feet to the pallets and unload. Over and over. *Sigh*.  I know there’s a way around this annoying and sore-back-causing task, like arranging stovewood into a kind of mobius strip, but good luck making that happen.

Cheers to the Park Street Grille!

a_Final-Logo

Rockland’s Park Street Grille is our most frequent hangout. It’s our “Cheers Bar,” where everyone knows your name (meaning the staff). It’s cozy, it’s a favorite of locals, the food is adventuresome and beautifully prepared, and they’re the best purveyors of Southwest cooking I know of in the area. After our seven years in Taos, Park Street was a welcome discovery – a taste of our former home. We love Park Street.

Just one thing, though: the “e” in “Grille.” Do you really need it? If you’re a purist, you know there’s a difference between “grill” and “grille.” And here it is:

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Edsel Ranger 2door Hardtop

 

 

 

 

Grill.

 

Grille.

Of course, some might say the best use of an Edsel grille is to remove it from the car, lay it over some hot coals, and barbecue on it.

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The vanishing of Sapelo Island

We love Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Getting to Sapelo (pron. SAP-illow) – just a few miles north of Jekyll and St. Simon’s Islands – is no walk in the park. You need to be an invited guest, or to be renting a room or cottage from Cornelia and Julius Bailey in the tiny village of Hog Hammock (pron. Hog HUMmock). There’s a passenger ferry from the Sapelo Island Visitors Center in the mainland town of Meridian, Georgia (no cars), and your luggage is limited. But if you go there – as my wife and I did for a week in June some years back – you’ll be living at the epicenter of a unique and vanishing way of life: the life and language, food and faith, of the Gullah-Geechee culture.

wallowThe Wallow, the Baileys’ lodging house

Cornelia Bailey is the island’s most prominent voice (“griot”) of the Gullah culture – history, language, cooking. She’s the author of two books, was honored by Jimmy Carter, and has been the main force behind the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society. She’s also a great hostess and loves having visitors.

When my wife and I decided to visit the island for a week or so, the Bailey’s lodging house, The Wallow, was booked, but Cornelia offered us a simple cabin down a dirt road at a reasonable price. Since there’s only one small food store in Hog Hammock that isn’t open on a regular basis, we brought a week’s worth of food and beverages with us, and of course our cameras and tripod. We also arranged to rent Julius’s Geo Tracker for, I think, $10 a day. If you want to see the island, you’ll need a car, or else have very good luck hitchhiking.

SapeloOct070080smallOur week-long rental was similar to this “single wide.”

The island’s history is rich, confusing, and complicated, from slavery days to now, with ultra-wealthy people buying and selling the island several times over (including tobacco mogul R. J. Reynolds, whose mansion sits at the southern tip if the island). The State of Georgia now owns about 95% of the island, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources manages it. But private ownership persists in the central village of Hog Hammock, a virtual “living museum” of Gullah-Geechee culture.

BJConfectionersBJ’s Confectionary in Hog Hammock, closed for some time.

People are leaving.

The town’s population used to be several hundred, was 80-something when we went there, and at most recent count was 47. The few kids who live there go to school on the mainland via ferry, and when they’re old enough leave the island for good to find work. And recently, some of the residents have been selling property to off-islanders, resulting in new homes being built and a huge increase in property taxes. That’s very bad news (New York Times article) for Hog Hammock and the Gullah-Geechee way of life.

But for some better news, please visit Hog Hammock’s blog spot, which links to almost everything you’ll need to know about what’s happening there.

HomesteadHomestead in Hog Hammock. Not sure if anyone was living there.

Exotic, inscrutable Gullah (for most of us)

Linguists note that the Gullah language, which evolved to be spoken rather than written, is not a pidgin or dialect form of English, but rather a well-integrated and rich language of its own that was able to thrive for two centuries among the isolated communities on the islands off Georgia and South Carolina. Here’s a short sample of a Gullah poem by the late Virginia Mixson Geraty, a strong proponent of preserving both spoken and written Gullah.

Thank God for Charleston

T’engk’ Gawd fuh Chaa’stun

‘E, fus daa’k en’ un tek me pen een han’ fuh write
Dese t’ing wuh uh t’ink ’bout Chaa’stun.

(It’s twilight and I take up my pen to write/These things that I think about Charleston.)

Uh yent hab onduhstan’ fuh write lukkuh dem buckruh write
Wuh lib tuh Brawd Street.

(I don’t have the education to write like the buckruh write/That live on Broad Street.)

Sheesh… I’ve heard a whole passel of Gullah – in stories, songs and jokes – from the Darien Shouters (in Darien, GA, just south of Meridian) at Sapelo’s annual Cultural Festival in October, and though most of the crowd (black, Gullah-Geechee in heritage) were in hysterics and loving it, I couldn’t grab onto more than a word or two. It’s a foreign language! But it’s okay. I was happy to see and hear it – I don’t need to learn it.

DarienShoutersThe Darien Shouters at the annual Cultural Festival on Sapelo, 2008. (my photo)

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Beautiful, disappearing Sapelo.

Mostly empty of people now. Hauntingly beautiful. The true, secret jewel in the crown of Georgia’s Golden Isles.

CabrettaCreek090Cabretta Creek, separating Sapelo from tiny Cabretta Island (and state park). Full of gators.

Lighthousepond3099Lighthouse Pond, near the southern end.

CabrettaBridgeCabretta Bridge: Sapelo on left, Cabretta Island on right. Cabretta has several canoes which visitors are welcome to use, for free, to paddle through the estuaries and fight off gator attacks.

My wife and I went there for that week in June to do photography. At the time, I was using my Pentax 67 (6 centimeters by 7 centimeters negative size) medium-format film camera (no digital for me back then), and I had one simple photo in mind that I’d visualized and planned before we got there. Someone – a kid or adult – on a country dirt road with a fishing pole, leaping and clicking their heels together in a patch of sunlight, overjoyed to be going fishing.

My wife and I, in Julius’s Geo Tracker, scouted lots of dirt roads for the shot, and nothing was quite right until we hit the dirt road leading to Cabretta Island. Oh man, perfect!  An enormous live oak dripping Spanish moss dangled over the sunlit part of the road, with sun dappling through. You couldn’t paint it any better than this.

We went back the next day at the time when the sun angle would be just right, and my wife gladly modeled for me, jumping and clicking her heels a dozen times or more as I clicked the camera on a tripod. Here’s what we got as my favorite shot (and I’m uploading it at high res so you can see it big).

GoneFishingBlogGone Fishing (my favorite photo of all time)

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For a wonderful tribute to the Gullah Geechee people of the barrier islands, and some terrific black and white photos (including two of our great host, Julius (Frank) Bailey), check out this story in The Daily Mail.

When we weren’t taking photographs, we discovered whelk hunting on Cabretta Island beach… they’re pretty easy to find, and just like their close cousin the conch, they’re absolutely delicious in fritters!

Whelks and whelk fritters

Whelks in Maine? Yes! Gulf of Maine, Inc., in Pembroke, sells and ships them. Maybe other companies do, too. And whelks are a frequent “collateral” catch in lobster traps, so it’s worth asking around.

(Note: if you’re whelkless, no problem. Substitute sea clam meats, or well cooked quahogs. You need something firm, not steamers or mussels)

On Sapelo, we gathered about a dozen whelks, took them to our cabin and steamed them open, removed the meats and froze them in plastic bags. We also saved a small jar of the whelk broth from the pan. Once back home in Decatur, we minced the meats in our ancient meat grinder and did something similar to this, as I recall:

Ingredients

About 1 cup minced whelk
½ cup whelk broth
¼ cup milk
4 eggs, separated
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
About 2 cups canola oil, or half canola – half peanut oil

Mix together the whelk broth, milk and 2 egg yolks until well blended. Now mix in the minced whelk.

In another bowl, mix flour with the baking powder, salt and cayenne. Combine this with the wet ingredients.

Beat 4 egg whites until fluffy. Fold the egg whites gently into the batter.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. When it’s quite hot, drop tablespoons of the batter into the oil. Turn once with tongs or a slotted spoon. Remove and let drain on paper towels. Serve them hot with tartar sauce or your favorite hot sauce.

Makes 16-20 fritters. Have fun!

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There’s no other place in this country quite like Sapelo Island. I hope folks there can hang on to what they have.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.