Carolina Traditions: The Hot and Hot Fish Club from the 1800s lives on in modern times

Updated: Jul. 27, 2018 at 12:07 AM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The Hot and Hot Fish Club is an odd name.

If it sounds familiar, you've probably been to the popular bar and restaurant in Murrells Inlet called the "Hot Fish Club" or maybe down to Birmingham, Alabama to the award-winning restaurant "Hot and Hot Fish Club."

But those places have an ancestor, a predecessor, of the same name. And that first iteration goes back to early American leaders in slim fishing boats, skimming along the South Carolina coast, soon after the American Revolution.

Hot and Hot Fish Club of All Saints Parish

Though there's a historical marker in Murrells Inlet, it's perhaps a lesser-known part of South Carolina history. The Hot and Hot Fish Club of All Saints Parish was an epicurean gentleman's club, dating back over two centuries in Horry and Georgetown counties, made up of politicians, planters and military officials who came together on summer Fridays to socialize and enjoy good food and drink together.

All Saints Parish was the name given in colonial times to what now encompasses the Waccamaw Neck area of Horry and Georgetown Counties.

Chris Hastings is the chef and owner of the Hot and Hot Fish Club restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. Growing up, the James Beard Award winner spent his summers on Pawleys Island, where his mother's family went back for generations and his great-great-great-great grandfather was a member of the original club. "The Hot and Hot Fish Club was formed by a group of men who loved to eat, and they loved to fish and be out on the salt marsh," he says.

Early on, the informal social club was made up of a group of gentlemen, mostly owners of rice plantations along the Waccamaw Neck, who regularly came together on Fridays to fish, to talk, to eat well, and to drink even better.

Christopher Boyle, a local historian who teaches at Socastee High School and CCU, has done extensive research about clubs like this one. "At that time there were a bunch of fishermen, eight to ten would gather and they would fish all day, and they eat their fish at night, and drink plenty of alcohol."

Boyle's research shows the first meetings of the Hot and Hot Fish Club took place in a one-room building on the northern point of Drunken Jack Island, in the Murrells Inlet area. While the club's early history is somewhat murky, Robert F. W. Allston, rice plantation owner and governor of South Carolina from 1856 to 1858, claimed the club existed before the War of 1812, and that he went to meetings as a guest of his brother-in-law when he was a boy of 15, in 1816, according to Boyle's research.

When a storm destroyed the club's first building, the members built another one on a clam bank on Brookgreen's owner Joshua John Ward's land, in what is today Huntington Beach State Park. The club's quarters moved several more times due to storms and fire, with the fifth and final clubhouse built on land donated by General Joseph Alston at his Midway plantation on what is now called Clubhouse Creek, according to an article Boyle wrote and published in the Independent Republic Quarterly in 1996.

Hastings, the chef who named his Birmingham restaurant for the club of which his ancestor was a member, takes inspiration from the spirit that motivated the men to gather and celebrate. "Inside the clubhouse were very profound and happy times," Hastings says. "And for a brief period of time, whatever worry or concern or trouble that may be lurking on the other side of that door was temporarily forgotten.

"And the reason they gathered, they loved and had great reverence for the salt marsh and those tidal flows… and the power of that water. And they also understood the same thing that I understood, which was when you harvest those things of that place and you gather and you break bread with people, it's very powerful, very meaningful."

The origin of the club's name remains a matter of debate. Hastings' research has told him that "the term hot and hot refers to course after course after course serve piping hot."

Boyle's examination of history points him in a different direction. "The club's name derives from the spices on their fish. So they would have hot and hotter. So spicy and spicier fish."

As All Saints Parish evolved from a sparsely-populated outpost to a thriving center of commercial rice production largely built on the work of hundreds of slaves, the culture of the plantation owners formalized. That last clubhouse location in the modern Pawleys Island area, according to Boyle, is where their activities became more official, going from casual fishing trips to large banquet-style gatherings.

"At that last site… they ended up really outdoing themselves, so to speak," he says. "They had a racetrack for their horses. They had a billiards table of 10 pins, which we would think of as bowling."

The Rules of the Hot and Hot Fish Club

In 1844, the members also established a list of 16 rules, including Rule I, "It is the duty of members to meet, at or about 12 o'clock, at the Club House, at Midway sea shore, on each Friday, from the first Friday in June, to the last Friday, but one, in October."

Rule V states, "Each member, in rotation, and in order of residences, shall act as President. He shall furnish a ham and good rice, and also attend to the preparation for dinner, to be on the table at 2 o'clock… If absent, he must send his ham and rice."

Rule VI mandated that the vice president should supply the club water and ice, in addition to his dish and wine. According to the rule book, "He must also announce whether champagne will be brought at the ensuing club meeting."

Each member was tasked with contributing "at least one substantial dish for dinner, also one bottle of wine… He must also bring not less than two knives and forks, two tumblers, two wine glasses, two plates and one fish," per Rule VIII. Unmarried members were given a pass and "permitted in rotation to furnish a pudding, in lieu of that required under Rule VIII."

Any member who was elected to a new office or had a new baby was required to give the club "a basket of champagne," but any member who got married was to be given a basket of champagne by all the unmarried members.

But beyond the social aspect of the Hot and Hot Fish Club, Boyle's research leads him to believe the very seeds of secession and the Civil War were sprouted within these gatherings.

"This is late 1840s into the 1850s, very wealthy and prestigious men—we're talking about the lieutenant governor of the state, the president of the South Carolina Senate. We're all here. That would be Joshua John Ward as the lieutenant governor. And Robert F. W. Allston as the president of the senate. Later on, he becomes governor of South Carolina," Boyle says. "These are the type of men we have here now."

As the gulf between the ideologies of the North and South continued to widen in the years leading up to the Civil War, the social gatherings of the elite took on new import.

"In the early days, it's just for fun, but as the political agitation between northeast, south heated up the Hot and Hot Fish Club became a place for the planters to really organize and practice speeches and also consolidate their arguments"

But if their discussion at the club led to secession, then it also led to their demise. The Civil War brought an end to the planter way of life, and to the economy on which it depended.

After the war, Boyle says, "there was no need for something such as a Hot and Hot Fish Club anymore because these were no longer the gentleman of leisure that they were before the war."

And what was left is just a name… and a legacy of taking the best of what our coastal waters offer up… to savor.

From Creek Boy to Chef Entrepreneur

Chris Hastings is a James Beard-award winning chef who owns a restaurant called the "Hot and Hot Fish Club" in Birmingham, Alabama. Growing up, he spent summers in Pawleys Island with his mother's family, running jon boats around the salt marsh, catching an cooking seafood, and coming to appreciate the same parts of life that his great-great-great-great grandfather did, as a member of the original Hot and Hot Fish Club.

Hastings spoke with us in an interview in January 2018.

"I began my lifetime kind of love affair with Pawleys Island, uh, as a very young boy from the time I was born, my family would go each summer to Pawleys Island. My grandmother on my mother's side would rent a house for the entire summer. We'd go spend anywhere from a week to a month there every year.

"And as the oldest son from the time I was old enough to toss a casting net or learn how to fish or run a jon boat or, you know, just understand how to, how to catch things in the creek, the Salt Marsh, uh, it was my responsibility to be the creek boy during that period of time and go out and catch crabs saying shrimp, a catch fish, oysters.

"I just began to have this intimate relationship with the salt marsh there at Pawleys and I became very good at knowing when and how and where to catch shrimp, fish, whatever crabs

"An interesting thing about all that is, is at the time, you know, I was just having a good time. I was happiest kid on the planet, but it, how it informed me as an adult and as a chef was very profound for me.

"It has informed me as a chef and as a person, um, about the value of being in a place, harvesting things from a place, respecting those things in terms of preparation and then breaking bread with friends and family and the power of that. And the hope of that is, is really what I learned as a child that has carried over into my life, as a, as a, a restaurateur in a chef.

"I learned a lot about the club culture then and why and how and why men would gather in their clubs at the hot and hot was particularly interesting for me because of the obvious connection to the salt marsh.

"And the reason they gathered, they loved and had great reverence for the salt marsh and those tidal flows that I spoke about and the power of that water. And they also understood the same thing that I understood, which was when you harvest those things of that place and you gather and you break bread with people, it's very powerful, very meaningful.

"I thought, you know, that's how cool is that to have, number one, the reverence of that place. And then commit yourself to the time and energy to gather together with your dearest and closest friends to celebrate that place. Have a, break bread together with that amazing bounty and then escape the trouble of today for a minute. And, and the value of that and the hope of that.

"The more I read about it, the more it became obvious to me that I wanted to carry on that tradition by um, naming the restaurant as the hot and hot fish club and then providing that same crossing the threshold here at our front door of the restaurant. The door shuts behind you. You sit down with your friends or colleagues, you have a delightful meal. All the trouble of the day is forgotten for a little bit and provide that, that solace, that escape, that brief moment away from all of any worries in trouble so that you can be in a place to break bread with your friends.

"That whole idea, farm to table, food of place for the season started with my experience in Pawleys island, South Carolina.

"And it, it's such a place of reverence for me. Um, I've instructed my family when I die, I'm going to be cremated and where we're going to pick a high tide, the nearest full moon. Um, I want my children and grandchildren and getting a Jon boat and sprinkling my ashes all up and down that salt marsh is, that's where I want to spend eternity."

Carolina Traditions

To see more stories about the history of our area, head to our website, hover over the Local tab, and you'll see the Carolina Traditions link.

Thanks to Christopher Boyle and Chris Hastings for lending their knowledge of the club.

Chris Hastings grew up in Charlotte and studied at Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Providence, R.I. He met his wife Idie in Birmingham before moving to California where they both worked in restaurants, before returning to Alabama where they opened the Hot and Hot Fish Club, one of the first farm to table restaurants east of the Mississippi. Chris was named the James Beard Best Chef: South in 2012.

Christopher Boyle is a Hudson Valley, N.Y. native who graduated from Coastal Carolina University and earned a Masters from Winthrop University. He teaches full-time at Socastee High School and several classes each semester at CCU. Boyle is the author of Mansfield Plantation: A Legacy on the Black River, other historical publications, and a forthcoming book about antebellum Georgetown gentlemen's clubs and their role in the Civil War.

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