Monday, January 6, 2014

An Epiphany: Olde Christmas on the Outer Banks

     January 6th, the Twelfth Night, is known as Old Christmas, or the night of the Epiphany.
And it's why Christmas comes not just once, but twice on the Outer Banks.

     On Hatteras Island, in the village of Rodanthe, folks still gather on the Saturday closest to this date to roast oysters, shoot guns, share a feast, and chase the ghost of Old Buck.

     Old Buck?  He was a wild one, that bull that ran through Trent Woods, now known as Frisco.  He terrorized the villagers until a courageous hunter brought him down.  But his ghost returns every Old Christmas to once again wreak havoc and elicit giggles from children young and old.  In the above photograph, you can maybe make out a sun-bleached skull and big horns on the "ox," and men bent doubled and covered in bedclothes with barrel hoops helping to round out the oxen's sides.  Others are beating a drum, some playing with fifes.  Old Buck was a tradition in merry old medieval England that was carried by English settlers to our NC shores.

     Outer Bankers are known, even to this day, for their hearty survival skills, as well as their resistance to change.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, on the way to Rodanthe
     When the English adopted the "new" Gregorian calendar in 1752, that news did not arrive in the rather isolated Outer Banks for quite a while.  And when it did, Bankers did not care much for the shorter calendar which lobbed 11 days and 15 seconds off the former Julian calendar, changing the official date of Christmas from January 6th to December 25th.  Never mind that Pope Gregory XIII had made the official change in 1582 (and England took two centuries to implement it).  Never mind that the rest of the world was noting its days and weeks with the Gregorian system.

    Outer Bankers ignored it, and continued to celebrate the Epiphany as their Christmas date.

     During the 1800s, men in Rodanthe held shooting contests during the afternoon, offering prizes.  They still do.  It's known as an "Oyster" Shoot (vs a Turkey Shoot), with a basket of fresh Pamlico Sound oysters going to the winner.

Trick is to talk someone into shucking oysters for you!
     Children helped with a "Candy billin'", boiling down molasses or sugar, then delighted in "pulling" the taffy-like candy.  The rewards were sweet.

The women spent the day, then and now, cooking up a chicken stew topped with "pie bread," pastry strips that old-timers still covet on their crab boils or oyster stews.  Oysters continue to be roasted over an open fire, then shoveled onto tables for shucking.  Greens and sweet potato pie rounded out the old menu, and I bet they're still  among the dishes folks bring to share.
     In the old days, there was a parade with fife and drums, the church choir providing the marching music.  Folks dressed in costume, in old clothes with stockings on their faces, and told jokes and made merry, with square dancing added in later years.  Today, a live band sets up with speakers and folks hit the dance floor after the tables are cleared.
      And in days past, it sometimes got to be, as described by an onlooker, "a drunken brawl down there." There are stories of men dancing until the buttons on their drawers popped off, or drinking eggnog, with or without the egg, until daybreak.  One of the keepers of the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station reportedly shot apples off the heads of his crewmen.  Needless to say, imbibing is no longer encouraged.

DUCK, as in Village and TREAT

     Further north, the villagers of Duck had their lively parties on December 25th, and on Old Christmas, a solemn, religious observance with no drinking, dancing, or carousing.  You have to wonder if there were not partygoers who traveled from one village to the other to keep the holiday parties rolling.

     Outer Bankers celebrated the holidays with what they could scavenge from nature, but what treats nature provided -  ducks, geese, oysters, drum, bluefish, and mullet.  Helen Daniels of Manteo recalled "her daddy hunting down to Pea Island" so that each member of the family had their very own duck to eat at their Christmas dinner. Or sometimes it was a big goose, baked with apples, she said.  Up at Duck, folks referred to the swans that graced their holiday tables as "white turkey."

     Even in 1585, Christmas was a significant occasion for a couple of native Bankers.  The two chiefs of the Algonquians, Manteo and Wanchese, made the return voyage back to England with the explorers who were attempting the first British colonization in the New World.

During that winter, they witnessed the holiday merry-making and, on the Twelfth day of Christmas, Queen Elizabeth proclaimed Sir Walter Raleigh a knight and Governor of Virginia.  Wanchese reportedly was disgusted with all the excesses he saw, and could not understand why the settlers would not share more with his people back home.

Fritters, Outer Banks style, with either oysters or clams

      recipe from THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK, by Elizabeth Wiegand, 2nd ed. 2013, Globe Pequot Press. 
            Mrs. Ivadean Priest, who grew up in Manteo, shared the secret to these fritters, and it’s this:  Rather than mixing the oysters in with the batter, dip the oysters in the batter then cluster them together to make a fritter, or sprinkle cooking batter with clams.  A cast-iron skillet works best, Mrs. Priest recommended.

For the batter:
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup self-rising flour
1 pint oysters (or clams)
½ cup oyster or clam juice, water and/or milk
vegetable oil for frying
As condiment:  ketchup, mustard or sour cream

  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with paper towels. 
  2. In a mixing bowl, mix eggs and flour together for a thick paste.  Add as much of the liquid as is required to make a thin batter that is thick enough to hold together when put into the hot fat. 
  3. Pour enough vegetable oil into frying pan to reach a depth of ½ to 1 inch.  Heat over medium high heat. 
  4. When oil is hot, hold the bowl over the pan, and dip oysters into batter one-by-one, then drop 2 to 3 oysters together in a cluster to make one fritter.  Or, pour a spoonful of batter into the oil, then quickly add a couple of oysters.  If you are doing clam fritters, spoon a dollop of batter into the oil, then quickly add a spoonful of drained clams to the batter.  Do not crowd the pan. 
  5. Cook each fritter until golden, then flip and cook the other side.  Remove and drain on paper towels, on the baking sheet kept in the warm oven.
  6. Serve stacks of the fritters on a serving platter, along with ketchup, mustard, or sour cream. 

YIELD:  dozen or more fritters

No comments: