Simple, fresh and local is the beating heart of Sharon Peele Kennedy’s food and advocacy.
by Mary Ellen Riddle
The taste of Hatteras Island is in Sharon Peele Kennedy’s blood. The daughter of a commercial fisherman and a professional cook, she grew up to become a notable seafood cook herself, as well as a radio personality, an author and a supporter of local fisheries.
At the heart of Kennedy’s endeavors is a style of meal preparation that was born out of necessity, ingredient availability and hard work. “Everything was fish, fowl or from the garden, literally,” says Kennedy of growing up on Hatteras Island. “We didn’t fry food. Everything was either boiled or baked.”
Initially, there were no fancy seasonings to be had. Her mother cooked what Kennedy calls Hatteras-style meals, which meant seasoning with only salt or salt pork, pepper and olive oil. Kennedy, 63, holds to that tradition, keeping the recipes that appear in both her food demonstrations and her seafood cookbook, What’s for Supper?, basic. “Dad taught us to keep it simple because when you’ve got the freshest seafood, you’ve got all the flavor right there,” she says.
Her first experience was at a local restaurant, working under watchful eyes. “The ladies were hard; they didn’t take no foolishness,” she says of the kitchen cooks who trained her. “My job was to keep up with the mashed potatoes, flip eggs and keep up with the prep work,” she says, not to mention making sure lemons adorned each plate.
She was 16 when she became a private cook for Nags Head cottage vacationers, preparing three meals a day for two-week spells. She served meat entrees and seafood, peeling pounds of shrimp and opening loads of clams for chowder. Later she ran a bed-and-breakfast where she made sautéed shrimp and scrambled eggs, shrimp quiches and clams casino. When she moved on to Hatteras Harbor Marina, she not only developed a recipe for a popular shrimp burger, but gave the daily fishing report for local radio listeners.
Kennedy introduced a broader Outer Banks audience to her childhood fare through that medium. She eventually segued from the fishing report, where she occasionally talked about favorite dishes such as soft-shell sand fleas, to having her own show focused on cooking seafood. “I developed a following,” says Kennedy. “People wanted to meet the girl eating fleas.”
That was the beginning of What’s for Supper with Sharon Peele Kennedy, which airs on Beach 104 (WCXL) and Water Country 94.5 (WCMS). The North Carolina Department of Agriculture is the official sponsor.
“I’m in my 10th year,” says Kennedy.
She was thrilled to help support area fishermen by encouraging her listeners to purchase local seafood. Three years after her first radio show, she published her seafood cookbook, now in its third edition.
This small-town, salt-and-pepper cook has come a long way from placing lemons on plates to helping avert net bans and bringing recognition to traditional food and livelihoods. She co-founded Outer Banks Catch, a nonprofit advocacy group that eventually came under the umbrella of North Carolina Catch. Kennedy is a spokesperson for the local fisheries and does cooking demonstrations at seafood festivals and other venues using locally caught fish. Her efforts bring a practical, yet vital, message to the table, shining a light on the money that commercial fishers contribute to state coffers as well as the many adversities they endure.
But being a cook came naturally. “Somehow I have known how to put things together that people have always liked,” Kennedy says. “It just kind of grew with me.”