Chef Chris Hastings pays homage to the fresh food of his childhood.

By Julia Dowling Rutland
August 29, 2002
Howard L. Puckett

Amid a flurry of gulls begging for their share, restaurateur Chris Hastings and his wife, Idie, set up lunch while sons Zeb and Vincent run along the beach. As the family gathers around the table, Chris begins to tell his story: "Creek Boy. That's what they called me."

On the map it's Salt Marsh Creek, an inlet from the Atlantic running parallel to Pawleys Island. To locals, it's just "the creek." Chris often visited here as a child to harvest clams, crabs, and fish. "It came naturally and it was fun," he says. This lifestyle inspired Chris' philosophy on food--local and fresh.

Tradition is important to Chris and Idie, and today's menu reflects their Southern roots. Paying homage to meals of decades ago, the couple prepares a vibrant platter of Hot and Hot Fish Club Tomato Salad. The first Hot and Hot Fish Club (namesake to Chris' renowned restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama) was a men's club founded more than 150 years ago. Membership included Chris' great-great-grandfather. Its name evoked the tradition of serving many steaming seafood courses, one after the other.

Though not hot, and not seafood, the tomato salad Chris derived from succotash uses Southern favorites--lima beans, bacon, corn, okra. He prefers heirloom tomatoes: not hybridized or altered from their original form. "They are imperfect and often blemished," he says, "but it gets back to the flavors. Flavor is first, last, and always."

Lunch unfolds pleasantly but not too leisurely. High tide fast approaches, and the family's spot on the wide beach will soon be 2 feet under. High tide also means good crabbing, so it's time to bait lines.

The salt marsh fills, turning the wide mud path into a sparkling waterway. Lively blue crabs find their way to the deeper parts to catch a fresh meal. The Hastings have a similar idea in mind. All closely monitor several lines of string dangling from the dock.

Chris explains this age-old method of crabbing: Start by fastening a 6-foot length of string around a wooden dowel or stick. Tie a chicken neck or fish head at the other end of the string as bait. Drop it into the water and wait. A tug on the line signals a potential score. Slowly wind the string around the dowel. When the crab's in sight, just beneath the water, slip a net under it and quickly scoop it up.

Chris checks the sex of each crab before placing it in a basket. He returns females (and small males) to the water to ensure another generation. The crustaceans are feisty-mad, and Chris shows the boys how to pick them up without getting nipped. Escapes cause a bit of commotion as human feet leap out of the way to avoid their wrath. Zeb, 12, and Vincent, 10, watch with fascination as they let a few bold ones run on the dock. "We have to put them back," says Zeb. "Remember? If we play with them too much they die."

"Gosh, we've got problems," Vincent points out, as a battalion of angry crabs scuttles across the worn wooden planks. It's time to return them to the basket.

The now-receding high tide causes a riverlike current in the marsh--great fun for boaters and floaters alike. While Idie takes the afternoon catch to the house, the boys opt for a dip. Chris smiles as his sons take turns leaping into the warm water, remembering when this was his whole world.

Does watching his kids splash around make Chris feel old and sentimental? "No," he says, kicking off sandals. "I'm out there with 'em. I'll feel old when I can't do it."