IT WAS nearly midnight in Valona, Ga. Hunter Forsyth, shrimp boat captain and raconteur, tried out a classic blues run on the piano and grinned as several of his guests began to sing.
Midnight is late, real late, in this tiny coastal town south of Savannah. But there would be no fishing in the morning. The weather and the wind direction suggested a minimal catch, so Forsyth would stay in port.
Drinks and talk had filled the evening. His wife, Suzanne, sat on a couch, listening. Their four-year-old son, Will, had finally given up to the Sandman. The one-course meal Forsyth had concocted, a shrimp pilau (spoken of locally as a "perlow"), was to be served "when it gets done." An antique gun and a pair of banjos were placed above a fireplace at one end of the room. Elsewhere hunting guns were visable and outdoors the family retriever waited, eager to chase into the nearby marsh for a tennis ball if only someone would throw it. Otherwise it was very, very quiet.
Hunter Forsyth is at the beginning of a food production chain that ends when a supermarket or fish store shopper makes a purchase of shrimp. The price for prime shrimp is as high this season (nearly $5 a pound) as the price for local crab is low (about 18 cents a pound). "Business is good," Forsyth said, "but when the economy goes to hell everything goes to hell."
He makes enough money to be irritated with the inflexibility of an Internal Revenue auditor, but is quick to point out the squeeze on profits caused by rising costs and increased competition among fishermen. He explains the risky nature of an enterprise that depends on nature's largesse. "By the time you subtract our costs, you could put your money for a boat into T [Treasury] notes and get a hell of a lot more out of it," he declared. "If I've had a good season, we take a trip. If not, we stay home and go trout fishing."
At 36, with a healthy tan and a not-so-healthy pot belly, Forsyth owns one boat and has part-interest in four more. His family held a King's grant to land here in colonial times.
He was born on the same piece of land where this house, a newer, simple, two-bedroom cottage, stands. At 12 he began part-time work unloading the shrimp boats. For three years after he finished high school, he worked on the boats ("I thought I knew everything but I didn't know a damn thing"), then served in the Navy during the Vietnam war. He took up fishing again in 1968. Somewhere along the line he taught himself how to play the piano. Now there is a big car, a Lincoln, outside the cottage (Suzanne Forsyth calls it "Abraham") and a swimming pool beyond the screened porch. In the kitchen one finds such electic marvels as a blender, can opener and trash compactor.
Valona, his wife explained, is a peninsula populated by "one big first-cousin family." The lone tourist attraction, other than shrimp boats at the pier, is a relic of the first Rooselvelt administration, a worn post office that has withstood the weather and government efforts to close it.
"Almost everyone," she explained, "is related to Hunter except my grandmother. About half of them fish. Men marry into the family and end up in the shrimp business. They really stick together." The Forsyths host an oyster roast each year and participate in family parties on the Fourth of July and at Christmas that may attract 100 or more relatives. "There were a lot of children here a few years ago." she said. "But most of them moved away when they grew up. They come back to visit their Mommas, but there are only five or six young kids here just now."
As might be expected of people whose life revolves around seafood, it doesn't play a major role in their own diet. Both adult Forsyths prefer to order beef in restaurants and, according to Hunter, "the seafood we eat most at home is salmon patties." He makes breakfast and some nights he cooks the evening meal as well. "In my family, the men have always cooked," he said. "We have hot meals on the boat, too. Some others live on cold cuts." They cultivate a small garden and enjoy fresh potatoes, onions and several other vegetables. An empty 1.5 liter wine bottle has been refilled with hot peppers and vinegar. The liquid is used as a dondiment.
Valona isn't as isolated as once it was. Mrs. Forsyth and a few others are trying to preserve the local accents and some local vocabulary against the encroachment of television. But it is far from urban cares and, on a cool spring night at the freshly cooked shrimp were served, it was possible to comprehend Suzanne Forsyth's perceptive: "I don't think there's any better place to live or raise kids," she said.
Some local recipes follow. HUNTER FORSYTH'S PILAU (8 to 10 servings) 1 1/2 cups unsalted pork belly with rind or bacon, diced 1 pound smoked sausage, cut in chunks (optional) 3 ribs celery, chopped coarsely 3 onions, chopped coarsely 2 to 4 cups peeled shrimp 1 can (16 ounces) tomatoes, drained 1 cup rice Hot pepper sauce Black pepper Garlic salt (or minced fresh garlic) MSG (optional) Worcestershire sauce Salt
Render pork or bacon in a heavy (cast iron) dutch oven without browning it.Cook sausage. Add celery and onions and saute until just soft. Remove with a slotted spoon. Add shrimp and cook over brisk heat only until firm and well colored, 3 or 4 minutes. Remove. Do not pour off fat, but boil down liquid until water has evaporated. (The grease will begin to "pop.")
Return vegetables, pork sausage and shrimp. Add tomatoes and seasonings, using "more than you think you need," especially of black pepper Worcestershire. Stir to break up tomatoes, then add water just cover solids (about 1 1/2 cups). Sprinkle rice ove top. Stir it in gently and add a little more water if necessary. Allow to boil, them cover and keep heat at medium. Cook until rice is tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
Note: You may be tempted to pour off the grease. Hunter Forsyth doesn't do that because "the grease causes water from the shrimp to evaporate so the rice isn't sticky. You may be tempted to leave the shrimp out and stir them in just before serving. Hunter Forsyth doesn't do that. You may be tempted to add green or red pepper. Hunter Forsyth doesn't. He thinks strong flavor overwhelms the shrimp taste. You may be tempted to lower the heat. Hunter Forsyth doesn't do that because "the pilau will be scorched on the bottom and the rice will be gummy." CHARLIE TODD'S CRAB BALL APPETIZER (For 12 to 16 persons) 8 ounces cream cheese, softened 1 pound crab meat all shell and cartilage picked out 1 bottle (6 ounces) Heinz (red) sweet coctail sauce
Mix ingredients together thoroughly, form into a ball and cover with plastic warp. Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving crackers. CHARLIE TODD'S BROILED ROCK SHRIMP
Allow 4 to 6 shrimp per serving. Cut each shrimp in half with a sharp knife or cleaver and place pieces on a baking sheet or jelly roll pan with flesh-side up. Brush with melted butter or margarine, season with garlic salt and lemon pepper and cook in a microwave oven for about 4 minutes, or in a conventional oven about 4 inches from the broiler for about 5 minutes. Watch time closely. oWhen flesh begins to pull away from sides of shell, shrimp are cooked. DAYTON MALONE'S SAPELO STEWED WHITING
"You can use perch, too, the fillet or the whole fish. First brown some smoked bacon so you got some grease to work with. (If you stop a little bit before brown, it's okay.) Lightly flour salt and pepper and the whiting. Shake'em off and put'em in the grease over pretty hot heat. Cook on both sides briefly. You don't want'em done.
"Pour off some of the grease, but leave enough to make some gravy. Sprinkle in flour, lower heat and stir 'til it's brown. Add water to make a thin gravy. Naturally you salt and pepper all this. Then you put in your onion, in little pieces. Cook it a little bit. Then put your fish back in there, put a cover on the pan and cook'em really slow until you figure the fish is done, maybe 15 minutes."