Fish Camps: Fried Decadence On A Platter
I never heard of fish camps – roadside eateries with a gravel lot, home-grown signage and knotty pine interiors – until I moved to North Carolina. In my native Illinois, the only time people ate fish in mass quantities was at the Catholic Church on Fridays during Lent or at a fish-fry event that involved a feeding of the flock.
Fish camps in these parts are associated with Gaston County, where fishermen set up makeshift restaurants along the Catawba River during the Depression to sell their catch to passersby and make some extra cash. Those fry-up sheds that sprang up began as down-home, mom–and-pop canteens and later became permanent structures and actual year-round restaurants. They hearken back to the days when friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate something – a big catch, if nothing else.
There was the Riverview Inn, west of Charlotte; Fox’s, east of Lincolnton. They’re gone, which is a shame. Along with them is evaporating Carolinas history.
Luckily, some fish camps remain. They should be enjoyed in moderation at best, given challenged gall bladders and pyloric valves, but every once in a while, we need to splurge on a Friday or Saturday night. My personal favorite fish-camp fare is crispy, fried perch or flounder, or a fisherman’s platter – Calabash shrimp, oysters (in an “R” month), baked potato and slaw – split with my husband. Bring on the homemade tartar sauce. To heck with calories and gluten-free restrictions. Life is meant to be lived, at least once in a while.
Lately, fish has seen resurgence as people give up red meat and pork, and vegetarians eschew any land animals. I can’t say I blame them. I could eat fish most any day of the week.
The other day I texted, “Going to Twin Tops Fish Camp in Gastonia,” to my friend Fran in Los Angeles. She had no idea what I was talking about. “You know,” I said, “a restaurant that serves fried fish and hushpuppies (assuming she knows what a hushpuppy is).” To her California sensibilities, fried anything is suspect, and I suppose Fran is more right than wrong.
But: Southern California is home to fried fish tacos. By combining Mexican Baja flavors with the availability of fish on the California coast, a food sensation was born. On my last visit to LA, I insisted on a stop at Rubio’s, a chain specializing in these decadent sandwiches you can find especially around San Diego.
There’s something about the crispness of the fish paired with lettuce, a floppy tortilla and Thousand Island dressing disguised as “special sauce.” If that recipe could be introduced at Carolina fish camps, those eateries might enjoy a renaissance. Picture it: nuggets of fresh, local, fried fish; shredded iceberg with diced tomatoes and each camp’s own “special sauce,” wrapped in a soft-shell taco. Delicious!
Fish camps, are you listening?