Y’ought to know the story behind Lenoir County Fish Stew

Lauren Rose—
Fish stew | illustration by Lauren Rose

Cook it. Fry it. Stuff it. Eat it.

Cooking in the Carolinas usually embodies one of those four principles. It’s a rite of passage to have family recipes, secret ingredients and old traditions involved in cookin’ up a somethin.’So it goes without saying y’ought to know about fish stew.

Thought to have originated with the early English settlers in North Carolina’s Coastal Plain, there is a certain ritual to fish stew. Families can often still be found cooking fish stew the original way, in a large cast-iron wash pot over a wood fire in the front yard with a stick or boat paddle used to stir.

“It’s so unique. You only hear of fish stew living in Eastern North Carolina,” said Matthew Register, chef and owner of Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, whose serving piping hot bowls to customers weekly.

The base of the pot is filled with potatoes, onions and a meaty fish. Catfish, redfish or rockfish will do wonders. Layer the ingredients in that order for the closest thing to perfection. Bring to a boil and when the potatoes become tender, the stew is ready to be served.

Once the stew has been poured into a bowl, crack a raw egg over top. The egg is the signature of the dish.

“Nobody knows where the egg came from,” said Register. “This was a soup popular in the 1920s and 1930s in Lenoir County. In rural North Carolina on a farm, there was usually an overabundance of eggs. It’s likely a farmer put in an egg to add depth and heartiness.”

One can add his or her own twist to the stew. Register adds tomatoes, extra spices, and sprinkles bacon on top. As is custom, fish stew should be paired with loaf bread and served as the main dish. It’s a hearty soup and to offer anything else would insult the ritual behind creating the soup and gathering loved ones around the cast iron pot for singing, drinking, and sitting a spell.

It’s this eastern North Carolina tradition that prompted Vivian Howard, chef and owner of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston to ask chefs from across the state, including Register, to cook their own versions of fish stew with the proceeds going towards Hurricane Matthew recovery.

No matter how you cook it or stir it, fish stew brings people together.