Carolina Fish Camps: Good Food at Good Prices
by Dr. Stephen Criswell. Criswell is Assistant Professor of English & Native American Studies at the University of South Carolina Lancaster.
Filet of flounder, salt and pepper catfish, deviled crab, with fixin’s of French fries, hushpuppies, and slaw—to many Carolinians these dishes evoke memories of family-owned seafood restaurants dotting the highways along the Catawba, Saluda, and other rivers, lakes, and tributaries in the Carolina Piedmont and Upstate South Carolina. These eateries, known locally as fish camps, while threatened by chain restaurants and diet crazes, still draw loyal local crowds on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, who line up for half- and whole-orders of some of the best seafood around.
While in other parts of the country the term fish camp designates a campsite for anglers, throughout much of the Carolinas, the term refers to family-friendly seafood restaurants offering a mix of fresh- and salt-water fried fish to a largely working-class clientele. Fish camps are hardly dives, but most proprietors eschew table linens and china for a comfortable décor, where fried seafood and sides of fries, hushpuppies, and coleslaw are served to jean and t-shirt clad patrons in ladder-back chairs at uncovered wooden tables, surrounded by paneled walls decorated with stuffed fish or signs warning against swearing, drinking, and fighting on the premises. Management of the older fish camps have passed through generations of family members, and most employee the owner’s kin and family, making the fish camp a true family affair.
The first Carolina fish camps began as simple campsites along local rivers where textile mill workers could fry up the catfish that they caught in their rare moments of free time. Cat fishing in the Catawba, Broad, Saluda, and other Carolina rivers has long been a popular pastime, and anglers found very early on that these fish were best prepared in a fried cornmeal batter. At these campsites, land owners would often set up sheds under which cooks, often household servants of the site owners, would heat large pots of hot lard and, for a small fee, would prepare the fresh caught catfish. Many of these riverside fish fry sites grew into permanent restaurants. One of the earliest and most successful of these campsite restaurants was started by Luther Lineberger just across the Catawba River in Gaston County, North Carolina. In the 1930s, Lineberger worked in a textile mill in Cramerton, NC where his wife Stella, a former school teacher, was employed in the mill office. Luther’s skills as a cook were known by his employers, who from time to time would recruit him to cook for the mill supervisors. One campsite owner, Rosalee Hand, convinced Luther to cook for her at her Catawba River camp. In a short time, Lineberger recognized the economic possibilities in transforming these often rough and rowdy campsite eateries into family-oriented, liquor-free, restaurants. In 1948, Lineberger built a one-room dining hall that eventually grew into a successful local restaurant with a 500-seat capacity that passed through three generations of Linebergers before closing its doors in the late 1990s.
On the Catawba River, Lineberger’s Fish Fry was followed by a succession of other fish camps, such as Stowe’s, which began as a restaurant owned by Sam Moore, who followed Lineberger’s model and built a permanent structure at his campsite. Further down the Catawba, the Edwards family opened the Catawba Fish Camp in Fort Lawn, South Carolina. The current proprietor, Bob Edwards, bought the restaurant from his uncle who opened the fish camp in 1951, shortly after another uncle set up a successful fish fry shed on the river near Great Falls.
Similar restaurants sprang up along the Broad, Saluda, Wateree, and Little rivers in the Piedmont and Upstate of South Carolina or on the banks of Lake Wylie, Lake Marion, and Lake Hartwell throughout the 1950s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. These restaurants drew largely on the local mill worker population for their patrons, and as the mills grew and spread, so did fish camps. In South Carolina, the Greenville-Spartanburg area is home to at least half a dozen fish camps, and across the top quarter of the Palmetto State, fish camps dot the highways from Westminster, across Gaffney, Chester, and Blacksburg, over to Bennettsville and out near the coast where they are replaced by Calabash restaurants.
While the basic menu of fresh- and salt-water fried fish is shared by all fish camps, each restaurant offers its own specialties. Many claim to have originated salt and pepper catfish; several brag about their homemade, secret recipe, tartar sauce; and each argues that its method of preparing hushpuppies—spooned versus dropped by a machine into the hot grease, sweet or plain, with onions or without—or its coleslaw—sweet versus sour, with or without carrots--is the best. Several restaurants feature enormous candy counters offering the typical M&M’s and Snickers next to Squirrel Nut Zippers, Zots, and other old-fashioned or hard-to-find candies. A few South Carolina fish camps offer grits on their menus (perhaps as a tip of the hat to Charleston’s well-known shrimp and grits) and many have expanded their menus to offer healthier choices such as broiled seafood, baked potatoes, and salads. In 2006, Catawba Fish Camp made local news by announcing that it had switched to a specially designed, trans-fat free, canola oil. Bob Edwards revealed that the restaurant had been serving food fried in this oil for six months and had received no complaints.
Regardless of their specific dishes, fish camps are recognized by local loyal customers for offering good food at a good price. Bob Edwards sums up his business philosophy, saying “You got to put out good food … You got to give [the customer] something he likes …You charge the customer a fair price and you serve him good food, and he’ll come back.” This perspective is shared by most fish camps and is reflected both in the restaurants’ success and their importance in their communities. Fish camps serve as community gathering places, both as local sites where residents can gossip, talk politics, and discuss current events, and as hosts for church events, civic club meetings, and even political stumping grounds. During the 2000 election, the Catawba Fish Camp hosted a campaign stop by then-governor George Bush, but perhaps in a spirit of bi-partisanship, in 2002 the Catawba hosted a campaign rally for Democratic Governor Jim Hodges. But despite such high profile clientele, fish camps remain informal family dining establishments. As Beverly Lineberger of Lineberger’s Fish Fry explains, “It’s definitely family-oriented, it’s a good wholesome healthy family atmosphere that’s very informal,” adding, “you could eat with your fingers if you want to.”