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Pawleys Island, SC

Food; Low-Country Comfort
By Alex Ward

Published: June 7, 1992
Courtesy of The New York Times

PAWLEYS ISLAND is a small stretch of sand that lies about 25 miles and a couple hundred light years south of Myrtle Beach on the South Carolina coast. If they've heard of it at all, Northerners identify Pawleys with the rope hammocks made there. Those who have actually set foot on the place tend to speak of it in hushed tones, perhaps fearing it might disappear if they talk about it too loudly.

Having spent a week at Pawleys for all but one of the past 17 summers, I think the reverence may be overdone -- but not by much. With its four miles of sandy white beach and endearingly motley collection of cottages -- many with a view of the Atlantic Ocean in the front and lush marshland out back -- Pawleys is unquestionably lovable. For years, the term "arrogantly shabby" has been attached to it. While many of the houses blown away by Hurricane Hugo a couple of years ago now have much grander replacements, that description still fits.

Another term that gets a lot of mileage is "low-country cooking," a peppery cuisine based on the Carolina coast's abundance of fresh seafood, in particular crabs, shrimp and oysters. My own experience with this style of cooking is happily confined to the house we rent, where a series of cooks -- all from the same family -- has fixed our meals for as long as we have been going to Pawleys.

The first was Elease Wigfall, a large, friendly, no-nonsense woman. After introducing herself and exchanging a few brief pleasantries, she strode into the kitchen, cleared off a counter and set to work on a deviled-crab casserole that made a number of people I know very happy.

That was the beginning of a gastronomic euphoria that continued unabated for the entire week, as Elease served up one memorable dish after another -- clam chowder, shrimp creole , stuffed grouper, golden-brown hush puppies, coleslaw, rice and butter beans, baked squash, fluffy biscuits, peach cobbler. She adhered to the Southern tradition of a large midday dinner, which turned our afternoons into long stretches of bliss. The strain on the front-porch hammock was intense.

For us, Elease became the focal point of Pawleys. Whenever my family discussed our last trip there, or our next one, Elease always came up in the conversation. It wasn't just the food she prepared, or the wonderful smells that filled up the house. She was a presence, gracious and well tempered, who seemed to epitomize the character of the island.

Alas, nothing lasts forever. After a few years, Elease told us that she wouldn't be cooking for us much longer; age was catching up with her. Our only comfort was that her replacement was her niece, Martina Rolle, who had been raised on the family recipes.

Martina was young and pretty, which, though none of us said as much, probably made us skeptical that she could carry her aunt's spatula. We had nothing to worry about. Biscuit for biscuit, hush puppy for hush puppy, she was every bit Elease's equal. But the Martina Era lasted only a few years longer than Elease's. It wasn't age that caught up with her, it was changing times at Pawleys. Most people who rented on the island were now doing their own cooking, or eating out. Needing a steadier source of income, Martina started a housecleaning business, so our cooking is now done by Martina's sister, Shirley Smith, who brings her teen-age daughter Shona along to help.

Shirley learned her stuff from her mother, so her variations on what I like to think of as Pawleys's greatest hits tend to be slight. Because none of these women work from written recipes, there are always small differences, even in their own versions of a particular dish. This might be no more than an extra pinch of the favored seasonings, salt and pepper, or the plumpness of that day's offerings at the fish market.

Shirley does have a particular flair for the deviled-crab casserole, though, even considering the tough acts she has had to follow. She can also perform what I consider the single most incredible culinary feat imaginable: making okra palatable to a non-Southerner. This she does by cutting it into small pieces, frying it in a light batter and draining it well, thereby eliminating the slippery, viscous, green-slime quality that those born north of the Mason-Dixon find so repulsive.