July 2009

Marshside Mama’s Spell

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Bartender Tyler Gerow described it perfectly. “Our bar is like Canterbury Tales. There’s a little bit of everything.” And, he might have added, a little bit of everyone, too. You leave your social and economic status at the door. Marshside Mama’s Café, on Daufuskie Island, represents everything that’s good and fun in true Lowcountry style. Make that Daufuskie style.

A combination restaurant and bar with some of the best live music on the Southeast coast, it’s not a step back in time; it’s a step away from time. According to owner, Beth Shipman, that’s the point. “We have people come in, they say they’re in a hurry for some reason. And I’m like, what could you possibly be in a hurry for? There isn’t any place to go.” Shipman laughed. It’s a wonderful laugh, a contagious laugh, right in the spirit of Marshside Mama’s.

Shipman definitely has a point. One of the charms of Daufuskie is its isolation or, as one resident says, its “insulation.” Unless you live on the island, the only way to get there is by boat. There is ferry service, a 45-minute ride from Hilton Head Island. If you have your own boat, there is always the public dock. But no matter how you get there, Marshside Mama’s is a destination. So once you’re there you’re, well, there, where you want to be.

Some folks come for the music. “We had a band playing Grateful Dead covers. It’s fun,” said Shipman. “We go from that extreme to these killer blues bands.”
Everyone comes for the food. Shipman is famous for her gumbo and shrimp and grits. Also, if you see fresh fish on the menu, do not hesitate to order it. A local fisherman brought it to Shipman that morning. “This week and last week, people called and said, ‘Beth, you want the cobia?’ I said yeah! So I got really fresh cobia. We just picked up 200 pounds of beautiful mahi mahi. We also got flounder. Certain people I know like the flounder, so they make a reservation or I’ll call them and say we’ve got flounder tonight. Because they’re usually whole, I can’t put it on the menu ’cause I can only do one at a time,” Shipman explained.

A few things stand out in that statement. Yes, really fresh fish. And how many chefs have called you recently to tell you your favorite dish will be available? And finally, Shipman really only has room for one flounder. The kitchen is small and Shipman is the only chef. “It’s only me. And my friend Dee. Dee does all the dishes, and I do all the cooking. All the prepping. I sometimes surprise myself that I am actually putting out that many dinners,” Shipman said. The restaurant, cooled only by ceiling and box fans, seats about 60. But there’s plenty of room outside under the trees, with a view of the New River.

Along with the cautionary “no whining, just dance,” Marshside Mama’s “menu” is a reflection of the spirit of the place. It’s a big white board with the fare of the evening written out. A server goes from one table, takes the order, then moves on to the next. As the night progresses, items start disappearing from the board. If you didn’t make reservations (always make reservations), there will be plenty to drink, but food might be optional. “I like the white board,” said Shipman. “If I’m behind, I tell the server you can’t take that menu out to any more tables. You can seat them all day long, but they can’t get a menu until I catch up. If you haven’t had your order taken, you can’t be anxious to get it because you don’t even know about it,” she added. “Last week I loaded up my truck and put it on the barge. I thought [the food] would last for two weeks. Lasted until Monday (four days).”

Yes, barge. Some people have said going to Marshside Mama’s is an adventure. The organizational skills and strategies Shipman has had to develop would put some military commanders to shame. “Some people have a Plan B. I have to have a Plan G,” she said, that laughter coming out again. When someone asked barman Gerow how he could justify charging three dollars for a bottle of beer, Gerow laid out the beer route for the customer that all things coming to Marshside Mama’s take. “See, I get in my truck to go to the dock to get in my boat to go to my truck on the other side. Then I have to drive almost to Beaufort to the distributor (they won’t deliver), load into the truck, load it on the boat, cross over to Daufuskie, load it into my truck, unloaded in my storeroom. Then I put it in the cooler and ice it down. Shoot, I should charge you nine dollars! This is an old friend of mine I’m about to give away,” related Gerow, in his own Marshside Mama’s laugh.

Though he grew up in Savannah, Gerow’s family had lived on Daufuskie for ages. His grandmother was born on the island. His great grandmother also lived there. “When I was a kid, I hated Daufuskie. It was a bunch of work. We’d have to get our yard done in town (Savannah) so we could come over here and do Grama’s yard,” Gerow said. But after college and being out in the real world for a time, on a visit to his grandmother eight years ago, he heard Shipman needed help one evening behind the bar. Gerow volunteered and never left.

“People ask me if I don’t get tired of living over here. When I do, I just drive up and down 278 a couple of times. Get me back to my golf cart,” Gerow said.
Shipman is no stranger to Daufuskie either. Her family bought property there in 1960, and her father moved the family to Sea Pines in 1968. She went to Beaufort Academy, then Sea Pines Academy the year it opened. She went to the College of Charleston, taught Montessori, and worked in the restaurant business before, during and in between. “I was always in food and beverage. I think every kid I went to high school with was; our first job was working for Signe’s. We all adored her,” Shipman said. She moved to Daufuskie in 1990, started Marshside Mama’s in 1997, and opened in its present location in 1999.

She is not quite sure where her interest in cooking came from. “I guess it started at Freeport (a marina and restaurant just up the shore). We were doing these wonderful cookouts. The Hallelujah Singers would come over. A hundred people would come over on Wednesday. Lowcountry Boil, barbecue chicken. I said I could do that. Made everything by hand. I guess I started from that. I know I’ve gotten better. People I’ve known—chefs that I’ve known—would show me something, and I’d add that—make it my own,” Shipman explained.

Which is what Shipman has done with Marshside Mama’s. While there’s no air conditioning, while it might take a while to get your food, and while bug spray might be needed if you eat outside, to experience Marshside Mama’s—to be there when the tables and chairs are moved out, after people get done eating, so there is more room to shag on the concrete dance floor—is to fall under Marshside Mama’s spell: “No whining, just dance.” And that has Daufuskie written all over it.

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