As the Seafood Lab clock’s hands inch toward 9 a.m., Joyce Taylor bustles around the well-stocked kitchen checking last-minute details prior to a new Nutrition Leader session.

Before she hands out the six recipes they’ll be testing, she checks in with the women who over the years have become more than coworkers — they are close friends.

“We’ve got handouts. Remember I used to be a teacher,” jokes Taylor, now-retired North Carolina Sea Grant seafood expert, as she passes out the day’s recipes and rating sheets.

Like a well-trained team, the seasoned cooks, donned in “Eat More Seafood” aprons, divide the recipes from their coach, and begin pulling ingredients out of large wooden cabinets and packed refrigerators.

Since 1973, representatives from each Carteret County home extension club have gathered monthly to test new ways of handling, storing and preparing fish and shellfish caught off the North Carolina coast.

First known as the “Health, Food and Nutrition Leaders,” these cooks came, cooked, then shared what they learned with their own clubs back home in Crab Point, Gloucester, Emerald Isle and other spots along the Crystal Coast.

Sea Grant and the North Carolina State University Seafood Lab started the program as a way to promote North Carolina seafood products. Then, as now, its purpose was twofold: to provide a place where good cooks could test seafood-related research, and to translate that information to the public.

“Home-grown and home-prepared,” David Green, director of the Seafood Lab, describes the one-of-a-kind program. “It?’s North Carolina seafood products prepared by North Carolina people.”

What makes the Nutrition Leaders’ program even richer, he adds, is that women who joined in the 1980s are the “newcomers.” For 30 years, the program has sailed along with Taylor at the helm.

Now, their legacy will endure with Mariner’s Menu: 30 Years of Fresh Seafood Ideas, published this fall by Sea Grant.

Mariner’s Menu contains more than 160 of the Nutrition Leaders’ top-rated recipes, such as Sauteed Soft Crabs with Fresh Lime, Carolina Shrimp Boil and Scallop Bisque. Chapters cover such cooking methods as broiling, grilling, frying and steaming the catch.

Yet, Mariner’s Menu is more than a cookbook, as Taylor is quick to point out. It’s a complete seafood resource book for people who want to know more than just how to bake

More than 50 detailed illustrations by Morehead City artist Connie Mason add to the book’s down-home flavor, as well as scenic photos by Beaufort photographer Scott D. Taylor.

Joyce Taylor, herself, grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but moved to Carteret County to teach in 1954 and now claims the coast as home. She taught various grades before taking a job at the Seafood Lab in 1974, all the while slipping out in her boat and casting a line when she could.

“For 30 years, Joyce has spread the word on fresh North Carolina seafood — the distinct flavors, the nutritional value,” says Ronald G. Hodson, director of North Carolina Sea Grant. “With her dedicated group of Nutrition Leaders, she offers traditional and nontraditional fare that consumers trust they can make and enjoy at home.”

Taylor explains that seafood is not to be feared. “People have not been comfortable cooking seafood,” she says. But after she demonstrates or shares a recipe from Mariner’s Menu, people say, “It looks so easy, I think I can do it.”

In the Lab

For each cooking session, Taylor selects recipes ahead of time, gathers ingredients and buys the fish. Today, it’s 12 pounds — bought fresh the day before from a local fish market.

Recipes are timed so the dishes come out of the oven at different times. Taylor leaves notes on most of the recipes, like “Check the amounts of oil, butter.” Or, “Check the amount of butter needed for sauteing.”

We’ve got to measure everything,” says Dolena Bell of Beaufort. “She likes us to be absolutely correct in our measuring.”

As the pairs cook away, Taylor checks in, offering suggestions, tasting, urging them to write down any important information. At one point, she asks everybody to stop and taste.

Part science class, part cooking show, the women work with a relaxed precision that comes only from time together in the kitchen.

For decades, Taylor urged seafood lovers to veer away from frying. “I preached it for years,” she says, mainly for nutritional reasons. “But a book like this would be incomplete if it told you how to do everything but fry.”

By 10:45, Betty Motes and Bell start to fry their flounder for Crispy Flounder Fillets. Judy Blessing drops four fillets in a pan of sizzling butter at the same time for her Snapper Fillets Sauteed with Mushrooms. Taylor gives a short lesson on clarifying butter.

Fifteen minutes later, Taylor and most of the Nutrition Leaders begin tasting Deep-fried Shrimp.

By 11:15, the third dish is up — piping hot Mahi Mahi Sauteed in Butter. The room falls silent as the group, now burgeoning with coworkers from down the hall, savors the dish.

“Well it’s cooked to perfection. It’s as moist as it can be,” Taylor comments. “We should have used skinless fillets.”

Within minutes, Valaree Stanley and Vera Gaskins are back at work, dredging and draining firm white triggerfish fillets.

Next comes Grouper Fillet in Beer Batter. Again a hush fills the room, and the Nutrition Leaders fill out their rating sheets, ranking recipes from 1 to 5, which is “excellent.” Only recipes with 4.5 or higher will make it into Mariner’s Menu.

Just before noon, Stanley presents a platter of steaming hot, golden-fried triggerfish like a proud chef offering a succulent Thanksgiving turkey. Tasters in the now-crowded room line up with paper plates and plastic forks waiting for a bite with a dollop of homemade tartar sauce.

No one’s disappointed.

Within minutes, countertops shine, the spices line the shelves again, the dishes are washed and put away. And the Nutrition Leaders chalk up another successful session.

“I believe I’ve eaten about a pound of fish today,” Gaskins says.

“Yes,” adds Lissie McNamee, “We eat and go home happy.”

Meet the Nutrition Leaders

Each of the Nutrition Leaders brings a special flavor to the table. Over the years, more than 50 volunteers have supported Taylor’s Sea Grant efforts, including a Mariner’s Menunewsletter, and various workshops and publications.

“Their contributions are remarkable. The work — the book — would not exist without the Nutrition Leaders,” Taylor says.

Even after Taylor retired, these 11 women continued the monthly tradition to complete chapters of the book — and some still return monthly for a Seafood Lab project focusing on aquaculture species.

Dolena “Dolly” Bell

The youngest of five Gillikins, Dolena Bell grew up on a farm eight miles east of Beaufort in a little community called “Bettie.”

Back then, all the neighbors would tie their nets together each fall when the mullet ran, build a fire in the sand and have a fish fry. In winter, she and her mother often would go down to the water to gather oysters, then roast them on the shore or back home. She recalls gathering scallops, too, then selling them by the bucket in her side yard.

Yet even with all she knew about fish, Bell says she’s learned much at the Seafood Lab since joining in the early 1980s. “North Carolina seafood is hard to beat,” she says. “We were blessed.”

Judy Blessing

Cod and canned tuna were about the only fish dishes on Judy Blessing’s menus before moving South. “Being from a Catholic family, I can remember eating fish every Friday,” recalls the Athol, Mass. native. “We only had cod with tartar sauce or tuna casserole. Nothing fancy.”

All that changed when she married and moved onboard a 32-foot sailboat, Moon Mist. For six years, the newlyweds toured the world, docking in Beaufort for good in 1983.

“Sailing for six years we caught lots of different fish” like lobster and squirrelfish, Blessing says. But joining the Nutrition Leaders in 1985 finally helped her learn a variety of ways to cook and enjoy fresh seafood.

Vera Gaskins

Marrying a weekend angler in 1961 brought Vera Gaskins abruptly, but willingly, into the world of cooking seafood.

“He loves the sport, and I have always tried to use his catches to feed our family,” says Gaskins, a native of Alabama. Her sister-in-law passed along a few frying tips, but for years Gaskins relied on two dog-eared seafood cookbooks before becoming a Nutrition Leader in 1982.

Before then, Gaskins fried 90 percent of the seafood she cooked. Now the former Emerald Isle mayor bakes, grills, microwaves, stews, steams and fries. “I’m not afraid to experiment and alter recipes, and I no longer shy away from cooking seafood for a crowd.”

Martha Giles

“I don’t really remember “learning” to cook,” Martha Giles says. “We just did it, I guess, from helping Mother,” back in her Chadbourne kitchen in Columbus County.

Growing up close to the ocean, “We cooked a goodly amount of seafood, especially fish and oysters,” Giles recalls.

Marrying a fisherman — and a good cook himself — kept Giles near the bounty of the sea.

And joining the Nutrition Leaders around 1985 opened her eyes to the possibilities and potential of seafood.

“First is fresh, fresh, fresh,” she says. Fresh ingredients and fresh fish and shellfish taste better. “Also, that seafood can be cooked many different ways.”

Kay Holm

Squid. That was the first seafood ingredient Kay Holm was introduced to as the newest Nutrition Leader one day at the Seafood Lab in the early 1980s. “I looked at it and thought, ooooooh. But it was darned good!” says the long-time Merrimon resident.

The Los Angeles native always has loved seafood and loved to cook. She grew up by the apron of her Armenian mother, watching her craft pilafs, stuffed grape leaves, and of course, her sweet, light baklava.

Holm moved to Carteret County in 1975. “Back then, I cooked seafood the way everybody did — I fried it.” But after joining the Nutrition Leaders, Holm learned about other species besides squid, how to use herbs and spices, and new ways to cook and entertain with seafood.

Anne Lawton

When it comes to creating things, Anne Lawton’s hands can work magic. Whether working behind a kitchen counter or a craft table, Lawton could turn a few scraps of cloth into a pretty quilt or a handful of ingredients into a mouth-watering dish.

“She had this big metal tin that she mixed the fruitcake in,” her daughter recalls. Those fruitcakes tasted unlike any you could buy. Then there were her crab cakes, homemade bread and caramel cakes, too.

One of five children to grow up on a farm outside Summerville, S.C., Anne Smith married an Army man in 1939, moving around the world and rearing five children before retiring to Carteret County in 1968.

Two decades as a Nutrition Leader led Lawton to cook more seafood for friends, family and her home extension club, her daughter says. “Everything she made was delicious.”

Lissie McNamee

“I have my own gill net — 50 feet long — three crab pots and a row boat,” says Lissie McNamee of Merrimon. “It’s just enough for me to go out there and catch a few mullet when I can on Cedar Creek off the Intracoastal Waterway.”

The cheery cook grew up on a farm near Wilson Mills. The sixth of seven children, she learned basic cooking skills helping out in the kitchen. But before joining the group, McNamee had never cleaned a crab or filleted a fish. “I really only knew frying,” she recalls.

She had the good fortune to marry a commercial fisherman who caught, cleaned and cooked his own catch.

Joining the Nutrition Leaders in the late 1980s taught McNamee new ways to prepare their fresh-caught fare. Plus, over the years, she lost 50 pounds and gained good friends, tasty recipes and good health.

Betty Motes

Like many coastal North Carolina families, Motes’ mother and father farmed and fished, grew vegetables and raised hogs and chickens to make a living.

“My mother cooked fish at least once or twice a week,” she recalls. “We went clamming in the summer and bought oysters in the winter. We caught our own hard crabs in the summer. …

“We also canned fish roe, which we ate with eggs from our own chickens, for breakfast.”

She married, keeping her roots near Harlowe. As the Motes’ family grew, Betty began her own cooking traditions like conch stew and fresh-cooked hard crabs. But the ritual the Motes family will remember most is the annual holiday oyster roast with about 20 bushels of fresh Harkers Island oysters and 45 of their closest friends and family.

Mary Dudley Price

The seafood Mary Dudley Price remembers from her childhood in Tarboro and Raleigh came in cans or was salt-preserved. “Only oysters could be had fresh, and they were ladled out from large tins into quart and pint cardboard containers such as were used later to haul goldfish home from the store,” says Price.

The only fresh fish she recalls from her early days were from trips her father took out of Morehead City with Captain Tony Seamon, long before he opened his now-famous Sanitary Fish Market.

Mary Dudley married Woodrow Price, a newspaperman and avid outdoorsman.

A journalist herself, Price somehow fit cooking fresh-caught fish in between writing and editing for North Carolina newspapers and magazines and rearing four children.

As one of the first on board with Taylor, Price learned how to pickle fish, can fish and smoke fish. How to skin eels and shuck a clam. And best of all, how to make the most of the ocean’s bounty.

Valaree Stanley

Yes, Valaree Stanley knows seafood, after growing up on the Newport River and cooking the catch for more than 80 years in Carteret County. But she knows what tastes good after a hearty seafood meal, too. Cake.

The baby of 13 children, Stanley got her start in the kitchen at about age 7 or 8 by watching her mother and older sisters, especially Alice. Alice loved to bake cakes from scratch, even making her own butter, and to sell them at the Morehead City curb market, which opened in 1935.

Today, the vivacious cook still manages the local curb market, the longest continuously operating one in the state, as well as volunteers in countless other endeavors. But as in the past, there’s always time for seafood and her beloved Nutrition Leaders, which she joined in 1985.

Dorothy “Dot” Whitley-Overton

“Daddy was a fishing and hunting man,” recalls Dorothy “Dot” Whitley-Overton. “Mother canned fish and anything else that we could use. My bedroom looked like a grocery store” with Mason jars full of meats, fish, beans, potatoes and other vegetables from the family farm near Havelock.

As the oldest of five children, Whitley-Overton learned to cook by her mother’s and grandmother’s sides. She recalls feasting on stew fish and fish cakes, and getting to go crabbing with her daddy on Saturday if she finished her chores.

Then, “I married a man who was part cat,” she adds. “Fried fish one day. Two days later it was stewed fish.”

In the 24 years she’s been with the Nutrition Leaders, she’s learned how to cook crabmeat and other kinds of seafood, safe-handling tips, and that freshness is the key.

“Joyce has been the best teacher,”

Whitley-Overton says. “It has been a joy.”

To try a delicious recipe from Mariner’s Menu, see page 23. To order a copy of Mariner’s Menu: 30 Years of Fresh Seafood Ideas, send your request and a check for $25 to North Carolina Sea Grant, NCSU Box 8605, Raleigh, NC 27695-8605. For Sea Grant office locations, call 919-515-2454. Also, this fall, check for the title at your local bookstore, thanks to distribution through UNC Press,

Taylor and team will be honored at a reception Sept. 29, 4-6 p.m. at the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City.

This article was published in the Autumn 2003 issue of Coastwatch.

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