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Why do they call it Calabash?

Ben Steelman

A “calabash” is a bottle-shaped gourd that used to be carved for use as a ladle or serving spoon. Supposedly, the “Seafood Capital of the World” gained this name around 1880, from the gourds that used to hang beside wells in the area, according to the North Carolina Gazetteer. The U.S. Post Office Department formally adopted the name in 1883.

Before then, Calabash was known as Pea Landing, apparently because inhabitants shipped a lot of peanuts to Wilmington.

Originally a small fishing village, Calabash became notable in the 1930s when two families, the Becks and the Colemans (it’s hard to say who came first) began to operate “fish camps” there, with elaborate outdoor oyster roasts. Soon, they switched to shrimp and finfish, frying them in corn batter — and the distinctive “Calabash-style” seafood was born. As of 2009, nearly two dozen restaurants operate within town limits, most of them serving seafood and several of them claiming to offer the “original” Calabash-style recipes.

Local legand has it that comedian Jimmy Durante and his troupe passed through sometime in the 1940s and made friends with a young restaurant owner. Brunswick County historian Susie Carson says that woman was Lucille “Lucy” Coleman, a claim repeated in Theresa Jensen Lacey’s “Amazing North Carolina.” Soon afterward, Durante adopted his trademark sign-off — “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!” — for his radio show. According to Coleman’s daughter, Clarice Holden, and others, it was Durante’s anonymous tip of the hat to Coleman, who died in 1989.

Not everyone accepts this theory, though. Sheryl Hardee of Calabash maintains that “Mrs. Calabash” was her mother, Ella High.

Others say “Mrs. Calabash” has no ties to Southeastern North Carolina at all. The Internet Movie Database, among other sources, says “Mrs. Calabash” was a tribute to Durante’s first wife, Jeanne Olsen; supposedly, “Calabash” was an in-joke for the Chicago suburb of Calabash, which they both liked, or a comic mispronunciation of Calabesas, Calif. Fans note that Durante started using the “Mrs. Calabash” line about the time his first wife died in 1943. Other sources claim the real Mrs. Calabash was a women in Meridien, Conn. Durante himself never offered a clue.

Calabash is located on N.C. 179, about five miles off U.S. 17 and practically on the North Carolina/South Carolina line. The town hall is located at 882 Persimmon Road, Calabash [Map this].

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One Response to “ Why do they call it Calabash?”

  1. On August 9, 2009 at 8:00 am CAPT Robert F. Comer, US Navy (Ret.) wrote:

    In the mid-60s, I was a young naval officer and aide to the senior admiral on the West Coast. He (and therefore I) were invited to the annual birthday party for Jimmy Durante hosted by an old friend of Mr. Durante’s in San Diego . He was as charming and funny off screen as on.

    In a brief discussion with him, upon learning that I was from North Carolina, he told me the story of picking up his “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are” from friends who hosted him for several years at the town of Calabash NC. I have taken the story for gospel over the years, and although I have read contrary stories such as your research revealed, I liked the NC connection and have related it over the years. Apparently, Mr. Durante enjoyed the various versions and told the one best suited to the situation he was in. Nevertheless, he was a great gentleman.

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