Fried Food and the Beach — Perfect Summer Combo

Host Debbie Elliott talks with culinary curator John T. Edge about fried clams, fried group, and other fried delicacies from the beach.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

John T. Edge loves the beach. It's not the sun or the sand. It's not the sound of the surf lapping at the shore. It's the boardwalk fries. For this weekend's food moment, we turn now to our culinary curator. John T., welcome as always.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Southern Foodways Alliance, University of Mississippi): Glad to be back.

ELLIOTT: So is beach food the same no matter where you go?

Mr. EDGE: It isn't. I mean, for me the ideal West Coast beach food or coastal food experience is sitting in the Ferry Plaza Building in San Francisco and eating Hog Island oysters. If you swing down towards Texas, one of the best experiences I've ever had in sight of the water, or I'd probably have to crane my neck to see the water at a place called Gilhooley's down near Galveston Bay, where they did these roasted oysters on a kind of flip-top barbeque pit, fueled by wood, and that kind of wood kissed the oysters. And in the heat of the summer even, when you're not supposed to be eating oysters, once they're cooked, they're safe, and the ones at Gilhooley's are kind of the exemplars of what coastal food should be.

ELLIOTT: Now take us up to New England.

Mr. EDGE: Well, I think the greatest of that genre is the lobster roll. You know, here is this expensive food. We think of lobster as an expensive catch. But boiling a lobster, removing it from its shell, you know, laying those pieces out in a hotdog roll and drenching the affair in butter, you know, to me is a great way of saying to somebody, you know, relax. Sure it's lobster, but it's in a hotdog bun. Enjoy.

ELLIOTT: Now, are there any kind of visual clues or anything? As you're driving around your little vacation spot, you want to go to the best local dive, is there something you should be looking for?

Mr. EDGE: Well, for me, I'm looking for - and in some of this, Debbie, you know, some of it is cheesy. It's the same things people talk about for barbeque restaurants. They say, look for a mix of Cadillacs and pickup trucks in the parking lot. And you know, you hear that often enough, but it is true.

I mean, you want a place that draws wealthy folks and working-class folks. You know, for, you know, kind of the fish shack of your dreams, you know, you want an oyster shell paved parking lot. You want a building that's got a tin roof, at least I do, and clapboard siding. You want a place that's welcoming, that's lacking in pretense, that seems focused upon one thing, and in my case, that's frying a mean grouper sandwich or smoking mullet and making a dip out of it.

It's cooking straightforward great food, not gussying up, not swamping it in some sauce drenched with capers and lemon butter and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It's saying, it started out pretty well in the Gulf, let's not muck with it too much.

ELLIOTT: I love crab claws down on the Gulf Coast.

MR. EDGE: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: But what about, let's say, up along the Eastern Seaboard, where you're likely to be walking along the boardwalk at the beach? What are you going to find there?

Mr. EDGE: Well, you're gonna find fried clam strips. You're gonna find fried most anything. Like one of the great delicacies of boardwalk food is the French fry itself. I remember driving out from Philadelphia one time, heading towards the Jersey coast, ending up at a place that not only served French fries, but then served pizzas with French fries as the topping.

ELLIOTT: Hmm.

Mr. EDGE: So instead of pepperoni, we'll throw some fries on top.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDGE: You know, boardwalk food is greasy. Boardwalk food is extremely democratic. Boardwalk food is promenading food in many cases. You know, you pick up your little boat of - those wonderful little cardboard boats in which your fries would come and, you know, you're walking and snacking and dipping.

ELLIOTT: And dipping maybe in a little malt vinegar, say, if you're in Maryland.

Mr. EDGE: Yeah. Exactly.

ELLIOTT: What is it about the beach? Here you are in this hot, salty, sweaty environment, and then when you go to eat, you're gonna get fried, hot, salty food, like French fries or fried clam strips.

Mr. EDGE: There's something - I think one of the reasons we turn towards fried foods at the beach is, you know, we are in an indulgent mood. The beach is a permissive place. You know, it's a place that says, okay, have that second beer, eh, have a third. It's a place that says fried fish is okay for today. Tomorrow we'll start our diet.

ELLIOTT: John T. Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. Have a happy Fourth.

Mr. EDGE: You too. You too.

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