Cracka Meal

My father was and is a proud graduate of the Citadel in Charleston

My mother taught in Charleston

Growing up in Beaufort, we went to a lot of Citadel football games

Also, growing up in Beaufort, it felt like we had to drive to Charleston to buy almost anything

There’s a joke at home that my mother will drive to Charleston for a gallon of milk. She still keeps Highway 17 hot.

From the time I was born until 1998, if we were travelling to the Holy City from Beaufort any time on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, we tried to time it right to hit The Edisto Motel & Restaurant in Jacksonboro, South Carolina, known to all in the Lowcountry as the Edisto Motel.

At one brief time, Jacksonboro was our State’s capital on the banks of the Edisto River

From 1947 when it opened until it closed in 1998, the Edisto Motel was the main draw for Jacksonboro, which consists of a few houses, a few gas stations

Owned by the Hickman family who lived next door and only a stone’s throw from the black tannic waters of the Edisto River, the Edisto Motel remains for me the zenith of seafood cooking. I compare any seafood restaurant to the Edisto Motel. Some restaurants have come close, but none are as good

None

Change my mind? You can’t and won’t

Thirty five minutes from Beaufort

Thirty five minutes from Charleston

Fifteen minutes from Walterboro

Folks flocked to the motel for supper those three nights

Zelda Hickman and her sister Doris Cook ran the kitchen and cooked the food themselves. Really.

I know this because one evening my youngest brother was being very picky about eating his perfectly fried local shrimp

Mrs. Hickman always moved round the restaurant asking if everything suited her guests. That evening she stopped by our table, “Hey, how y’all this evening?”

She could see my brother’s reticence to eat despite my parents’ pleas. She squatted down beside him and with her lilting accent said, “Oh, Son, I need you to eat those shrimp. My sister and I peel and devein each one and then fry them just for you.”

Church honor

He gobbled every bite

People from all over the Lowcountry still bemoan the closing of the Edisto Motel Restaurant. As I said, we compare any fried seafood to Ms. Hickman’s and Ms. Cook’s. Knowingly, we roll our eyes and say to one another, “Still not as good as the Edisto Motel”

It was a family affair not just for the Hickmans and Cooks but for their guests, too

There were no reservations made

Instead, cars pulled in off of Highway 17 and patrons emerged to stand in line. If you were really lucky, you would arrive right at 5 p.m. on your way home from wherever you were going. Or you made that special trip to the Edisto Motel just for early supper

Standing in line and waiting was one of the best parts of the experience, because, it being South Carolina, all the customers would begin to chat and know people who knew people

“Oh, we’re from Walterboro”

“We live in Mount Pleasant”

“Just drove over from Lady’s Island”

“Came down from Summerville”

“We’re on our way back to Savannah”

Sometimes the wait would be for an hour or so

It did not matter one bit

I don’t recall anyone saying, “I’m not waiting in this line”

If they did they were a fool

The line was completely democratic and a cross section of humanity

The wealthy northerners that wintered at nearby plantations

The local folks who cleaned their houses

Black, White, Old, Young, Singles, Families, Folks from Off, Home Folks, Binyahs, Comeyahs, everyone went to the Edisto Motel

Inside the hallway of the building holding the restaurant there were long, metal, industrial coolers stocked with beer and soft drinks

Dads would always go inside and grab a couple cold ones and pass them around

By the time you snaked through the line and reached Mr. Hickman to seat you, he would ask, also in a wonderful Lowcountry brogue, “How many?” Then ” How manydidya have?” It worked on an honor system for the beer and cokes. They never monitored the coolers.

But no one came for the drinks

If you did not experience it, then there is no way I can describe it

Sorry

But, I’ll try

The seafood was fresh and local

Small creek shrimp

Mr. Hickman would drive to B&B Seafood at Bennett’s Point, to Gay Fish Company on St. Helena, and any shrimp dock in between to get the shrimp

They bought local oysters

Their flounder was flounder that had been swimming earlier that day

Their scallops were never skate wing

Crabs were deviled in the shells

Each meal was served with coleslaw or salad, baked potato or French fries, and hush puppies

I can hear Mr. Hickman now

Holding his order pad and pencil ready to go

“What ya having?”

“Slaw or salad?”

“Blue cheese, French, Thousand Island, Eye-tal-yun, Ranch, Oil and Vinegah, or Honey Musstahd?”

“Baayked or fried?”

He asked every diner that same question

Meanwhile, in the kitchen the ladies would put the seafood in a little egg and milk mixed together with some salt while you waited

They would then coat the seafood in cracker meal

Cracka meal as we say

Crushed crackers reduced to a flour like consistency

(N.B. Recently, a friend asked the Hickmans’ son what the secret was and he divulged the method and the brand of cracka meal. I’m in on the secret, but I’ll never tell)

Then, they would place the seafood into hot oil for just a brief spell then onto the plate with either the baayked or fried, some tartar sauce and some cocktail sauce. A lot of customers would order slaw just to have it to go with the seafood

The hush puppies fried in the same oil accompanied unnecessarily but oh so necessarily

The fried oysters in the winter were a work of art

During the early spring, if the shad were running, Mrs. Hickman would let you know that they had shad roe. She would fry it up and bring it sizzling to your table. I can taste the fried fish eggs popping in my mouth right now. I might be drooling

John Martin Taylor put the Edisto Motel fried shrimp receipt in his book Fearless Frying Cooking

He knew perfection when he found it

Like him, we knew perfection, too

We went their often growing up

During Law School in Columbia, a group of us went to the Edisto Motel for supper one night. Mrs. Hickman smiled and said, “I just love seeing people I’ve known for years all grown up” Little did we our days of fried perfection were not for long back in the 1990s

My family’s strongest and strangest memory of the Edisto Motel was sometime when I was in middle school. On a cold Saturday night on the way back from something in Charleston, we stopped for supper. It being cold, there was not much of a line. We were seated quickly at a table near the front corner of the restaurant

Across the restaurant were the Graces and Tuppers who also lived in Beaufort

We were next to a table of folks from Walterboro one of whom had draped what looked like a cheap rabbit fur coat on the back of her chair

After the usual slaw or salad, baayked or fried inquiry, we sat and chatted about the day, the weekend

In almost no time, our food arrived

Several of us had chosen the French fry option that night

Out of habit, my father grabbed the glass bottle of Heinz ketchup and began to shake it

Not knowing that the top was loose, he began to shake ketchup all over the dining room

He thought my mother had been shot

Mrs. Hickman, walking through the dining room, got ketchup on her glasses

Gene Grace’s shirt got hit from behind

The woman from Walterboro would never wear that cheap rabbit fur again

He shook with great vigor

No half measures

Finally, Mr. Hickman got hit behind the counter

Ketchup coated the ceiling

Once my father realized it was his violent shaking of the ketchup bottle and not a Stephen King movie come to life, he really started to laugh. So did all of us. My brothers and I didn’t get a drop on us

For years, whenever we went to the Edisto Motel, Mr. Hickman would wink at my father and tell him he checked the ketchup bottle tops just for him

I think there was a bill for the rabbit fur cleaning, too

I don’t know what that cost my parents

I do know that I would pay any exorbitant sum of money to have those shrimp and oyters again with some baayked or fried

On a camping trip a couple of years ago, a group of us almost recreated the fried shrimp using local shrimp, the right cracka meal, and hot clean oil

It was pretty close

But, it wasn’t the same without hearing Mr. Hickman asking if we wanted our potatoes baayked or fried

7 thoughts on “Cracka Meal

  1. I just had another memory. Once you wound your way indoors to the hallway where Mr Hickman stood, there was a window bt the hall and the dining room. On that window sill there were tiny porcelain figurines of animals- thumb sized. As a child I couldn’t wait to work our way inside via the line to look (but not dare touch!) the figurines. :—). The little things in life …. Anyone else remember that?

    Like

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