Outstanding Eats on the Outer Banks

by Patrick Evans-Hylton

Native Americans inhabited the Outer Banks and lived off the land and sea for centuries before the first Europeans explored the area. The Roanoke Colony was a 16th century effort by the English to settle the region, financed and organized by Sir Walter Raleigh.

There were several voyages between the colony and England, and the opportunity to explore the New World. Among the explorers was Thomas Harriot, who later chronicled his findings – including observations of the foods and foodways of the Native Americans, in his 1590 A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia; the region at the time was called Virginia.

Not surprisingly, seafood was a major part of the diet. He writes, “After they have taken store of the fish, they get them unto a place fit to dress it. There they stack up in the ground four stakes in a square room and lay four posts upon them and others over that … they make a fire underneath to broil …” and “Their women know how to make earthen vessels with special cunning … [they] fill the vessel with water and then put in fruit, flesh and fish and let all boil together … they put it out into dishes and set before the company and then they make good cheer together.”

Indeed, broiling fish and seafood boils are today time-honored ways to enjoy the fresh seafood of the Outer Banks, and such dishes can be found at many of the region’s top restaurants.

The unique foodways of the Outer Banks is a confluence of coastal cuisine and traditional Southern offerings. It’s not unusual to find restaurants with fresh catch on their menu next to eateries serving up barbecue.

On the Outer Banks, there are menus peppered with ingredients and dishes that epitomize the eats of the area. In every season, there is something fresh and local to celebrate on plates and palates.

The rich farmlands of Northeast North Carolina provide many of the seasonal vegetables and fruits, while the ocean, sounds, and tributaries surrounding the Banks offers a number of seafood items.

In warmer months, generally blue crabs (with the delicacy, soft shell crabs, available in mid-spring), Spanish mackerel, mahi-mahi, mullet, shrimp, and tilefish can be found.

Cooler weather typically offers bluefish, croaker, flounder, kingfish, king mackerel, oysters, sea bass, grey sea trout, spotted sea trout, spot, and striped bass. Year-round seafood includes clams, grouper, snapper, triggerfish, and tuna.

Seafood is the signature comestible on the Outer Banks, and to ensure folks are getting the freshest catch from local watermen, the Outer Banks Catch program was established in June 2010.

Membership includes fishermen (many of whom are multi-generational watermen), seafood markets and grocers, community members, and restaurants. The group works in tandem to get Outer Banks-caught finfish and shellfish from the sea to serving platters.

Many restaurants in the region serve approved Outer Banks Catch seafood; a platter with the initiative’s name and stylized fish logo can be found near the eatery’s entrance to identify themselves as a member. Knowledgeable waitstaff can guide diners through what is in season, and the best preparation methods.

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