When acclaimed Kinston chef and award-winning television personality Vivian Howard wanted to help victims of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, she decided to make a big pot of eastern North Carolina fish stew.
Selling food is a surefire way to raise money in the 252 -- or anywhere, for that matter. But in the Kinston area, Vivian said, "five times out of 10, the offering is something we call fish stew.”
Now this particular fish stew, pictured above in a photo by Dillon Deaton for The New York Times, is a simple, hearty, one-pot meal that's original to the three-county area of Lenoir, Pitt and Greene.
Vivian emailed the recipe to restaurants across the state and asked them to join the relief effort. So the secret to eastern North Carolina Fish Stew is out -- and that's good news for everybody else.
The local recipe calls for chunks of any firm local white fish (think catfish, rockfish or sheepshead) placed atop a layer of onions and potatoes. Include a bit of tomato (some recipes call for tomato paste, some for canned tomatoes), garlic if you like and a couple pinches of our much-loved dried red pepper flakes. Add water and cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid.
Then sit back, leave the pot alone and let it boil slowly. Tell some lies, have a nip, brag about your college basketball team or your golf game, anticipate how good that fish stew will taste. Don't stir the stew or you will tear up the fish.
When the fish and potatoes are tender, it's time for the crowning touch: fresh eggs. Yep. Crack whole eggs, one by one, in a single layer over the top of the broth -- one egg for each portion of stew. When the eggs have hard-poached in the liquid, the stew is ready.
"I believe the tradition of cracking eggs over top came about when a resourceful farmer needed to stretch a stew further than the fish could take it," Vivian wrote in her emailed request to restaurants. "And because eggs were something most farmers had plenty of, they became the way to add heft and heartiness to an otherwise lean offering. What a happy accident that the thing thrown in to make it stretch, made it memorable."
Then use a big ladle to dip up the stew.
"A proper serving is at least one piece of fish, two potatoes, some onions, and an egg swimming in broth," Vivian writes in her cookbook, "Deep Run Roots"(Little Brown & Co., 2016)."Shower each bowl with some bacon and set it up with a slice or two of white bread."
And that, my friends, is eastern North Carolina Fish Stew.
Jane Welborn Hudson, a native of Greenville, is a former staff writer for The Daily Reflector, where she was editor of Her... magazine and Greenville: Life in the East and several other niche publications. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.