Shrimp burger makes big splash again on St. Helena Island

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 22, 2012 

If the Shrimp Shack's shrimp burger gets one more shout-out, we may have to change the name to the Shrimp Shrine.

The latest praise for the St. Helena Island delicacy comes from this month's Southern Living magazine, which lists it among South Carolina's 10 best burgers.

The New York Times once described the Shrimp Shack as "a roadside take-out window on stilts, with just a bench and a couple of tables. It's like dining in a treehouse."

It has been perched like folk art on U.S. 21 between Beaufort to the beach since 1978. Shrimp boat captain Bob Upton and his wife, Hilda Naomi Gay Upton, chose the Fourth of July weekend to spring it on the world.

Since that chaotic beginning, locals, sunburned tourists and winter snowbirds have been stopping by, more often than not with their heart set on a shrimp burger and sweet tea.

Pat Conroy calls the shrimp burger "one of the joys of my life," even if he couldn't wheedle its recipe out of Hilda, whom he's known since their days at Beaufort High School.

When Hollywood came to town to make movies, the stars clung like barnacles to the Shrimp Shack.

Travel and Leisure magazine reported: "The key to the burger is, number one, using just-caught shrimp from Gay Fish Co. (owned by Hilda and her brothers)."

Hilda says the first place she saw a shrimp burger for sale was a hole in the wall in Thunderbolt, Ga.

But she and "Cap'n Bob" had long known it as comfort food from the tiny galleys of shrimp trawlers. The men would fix shrimp that way to change up their "Bubba Gump" diet on long trips offshore. They'd beat the shrimp with a Coke bottle, mix it with what they had and pan fry it.

When the Shrimp Shack opened, the shrimp burger recipe was a combination of ideas from Hilda, Bob and the restaurant's first cook, the late Martha Jenkins. "Martha was like a second mother to me," Hilda says.

Now a new shift is in charge, and a picture of their smiling faces at the restaurant window is in Southern Living: Hilda and Bob's daughters, Julie Madlinger and Hilda "Sister" Godley, and cook Mary "Neecie" Simmons. Somehow Mildred Bradley, who has worked the window for years, wasn't pictured.

These days lots of restaurants serve shrimp burgers. Some are like po-boys. Some are like crab cakes.

But in the end, it hardly matters whose secret recipe it is -- or even if it's supposedly one of the best burgers in Carolina.

The shrimp burger symbolizes a people who can make something out of nothing. It's a quirky twist on the norm, like a shack on stilts. It's a bite of a place where the pluff mud smells sweet, the breeze feels warm and nobody wants to be dragged back to reality.

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