Salt in the blood

“Fishing has built courthouses, schools, homes, communities. That’s what meant by having salt in the blood,” said Karen Willis Amspacher as she clearly and bluntly laid out the significance of North Carolina’s coastal fishing business in a voice still touched by the vanishing Ocracoke accent.

She spoke on the first day of State of the Plate, an excellent two days of exploring food issues in the state and the larger world. It was organized by Marcie Cohen Ferris, of the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and presented by the university’s Center for Global Initiatives, Center for the Study of the American South, Department of American Studies and Global Research Institute.

As a seafood lover, the articulate and forceful Amspacher – she’s involved in virtually everything about helping her home of Harkers Island, fishing communities and fishermen, including being on the board of NC Catch – and her fellow panelist fisherman Morty Gaskill of Ocracoke, spoke to me. One disturbing statistic: 90 percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. is imported. And only a fraction of that amount undergoes any safety inspection.  Add to that issue the recent Associated Press article revealing that some imported seafood was caught by slaves.

When I moved to Raleigh and began writing about food around 25 years ago, I was shocked that it was next to impossible to find seafood from North Carolina in this area. Fortunately, that has changed, as the “eat local” movement has begun to branch out from farms, but more needs to be done.

“‘Know your fisherman’ should be as important as ‘know your farmer’,” Amspacher said. “We are part of the local food movement. You must demand local seafood.”

Gaskill and Amspacher are part of a coastal success story: saving Ocracoke’s fish processing house for local fishermen and making it part of a cooperative. Fish houses have been disappearing, forcing fishermen to either travel farther and spend more to have their catch made ready for sale, or give up fishing altogether.

When the Ocracoke house closed, “there was nowhere on the island to sell. We had to go on the ferry to Hatteras or over to Cedar Island, taking up time that could be spent preparing our boats or doing more fishing,” Gaskill said.

Now the Ocracoke fish house operates as a 501 (c) (3), and they hope to reproduce its success elsewhere.

What can you do to help North Carolina fishermen and their communities? Insist on local seafood.

And, guess what? It tastes better, too.

Bye, bye brunch

OK now, ACC. I have tried my best to accept that you have added teams who can’t see the Atlantic Coast from their houses. And that the tournament will now last  longer than a midseason replacement series.

But this is too much. What in the world am I supposed to serve for a Saturday night final?

All of my ACC Tournament recipes are for brunch. For years, I had a civilized gathering of like-minded sports fans, a time to sip of morning nectars and enjoy quiche and seven-layer salad before the battle began. Something that a dowager countess might not be embarrassed to attend, provided she was wearing the correct shade of light blue.

Now what? I can’t possibly serve bloody marys after 5 p.m.

Blazing chicken wings, tubs of salsa, cold beers, these are the foods of nighttime game viewing. Less elegant, but welcome to the new ACC.

However, I refuse to give up without a fight. This recipe from my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” published by Harvard Common Press, will bring a touch of a Southern brunch to a munchie-central experience.

Marylynn’s Okra Roll-Ups

1 (16-ounce) jar pickled okra, well drained

10 ounces thinly sliced deli ham

1 (9-ounce) tub soft spreadable cream cheese

Pat the okra pods dry. Trim the stems and tips from the pods.

On a cutting board, spread 1 ham slice flat without tearing it. Gently spread a thin layer of cream cheese on the ham. Place 1 trimmed okra pod at one end of the slice and roll the ham up around it, pressing gently to make a tight roll. Trim any overhanging ham to fit the pod, the slice the roll into approximately 1/2-inch slices. Repeat with remaining okra pods. Keep chilled until ready to serve.

Note: These can be made the night before and refrigerated. Store in airtight containers in a single layer or in multiple layers separated by waxed paper to prevent sticking.