Food and Culture in the South:
People’s Feelings at the Seafood Buffet
Seafood buffets call like sirens along Highway 17 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. All-you-can-eat snow crab legs and piles of fried shrimp: what you normally don’t order for dinner because it’s too expensive, here for you, as much as you want, while you’re on vacation. They call to you through neon signs and big, oceanic roadside displays, even banners behind planes while you lie hungry on the beach all day eating only chips.
They’ve been at this game for a while and are pretty good at getting people to feed their families at twenty-one to thirty-one dollars a head. In exchange, most buffets deliver food that is just passable, tasking the eater with consuming as much as she can in order to feel like she’s gotten her money’s worth, and putting her at risk for anxiety, disappointment, and shame. There is one buffet in Myrtle Beach, however, that seems to care about the eater’s feelings: The Original Benjamin’s Calabash Seafood Buffet.
Bill and Wanda Howard started Benjamin’s in early 1989. They were young and married and owned a few motels: the Lighthouse Motel, the King’s Inn, the Victory. When their guests asked them where to get a seafood dinner, the Howards would send them up to Calabash, North Carolina, or south to Murrell’s Inlet because there wasn’t anywhere good to eat in Myrtle. They took this as a cue to open their own restaurant.
Thirty years later, Original Benjamin’s is an empire. About 250 people are on staff, including all five of the Howard children. One of the brothers heads a construction crew that does nothing but build and repair the ever-expanding restaurant. A full-time artist is on the payroll—a model-ship builder named Jimmy Frost—as well as a fleet of two shrimp boats docked out of Brunswick, Georgia, that constantly replenish the supply of shrimp.
As you can imagine, the restaurant draws a crowd. My dad and I got kind of wigged out by it when we visited one evening in midsummer. “This is stupid,” my dad said. “Did you see all the people?”
“Do you want to not go then?” I asked. It was a fake question. We were already signed in with the hostess. We waited in a lobby/bar area dripping with taxidermied fish. One whole wall was sharks, and near the entrance hung the gigantic jaws of a prehistoric great white. The people around us—suntanned, showered, dried off with hotel towels—stood around in vacation clothes under these things.
After a while we were led to our table, our host walking backwards and projecting in a tour-guide voice where to find the restrooms, the meat-carving station, the crab legs, the dessert bar. He sat us in a lovely windowed dining room with a view of the murky brown Intracoastal Waterway flowing to our west. Antique crab traps hung from the ceiling and a helmet from an old diving bell stared out from a ledge behind me. Our waitress came over and explained where the butter was for the crab legs and then we were off, up the stairs to the buffet.
Original Benjamin’s buffet sits at the nexus of its eleven dining rooms, and it is beautiful. The colors are rich and inviting: gold rails on the buffet tables glint in the light and heighten the impression of abundance. This is not the kind of buffet where a glob of cheese will plasticize over the last scoop of broccoli; workers are vigilant in replacing dishes before they lose their appeal.
They have 170 items, labeled with seafood names a person has heard of: shrimp scampi, shrimp and grits, low-country boil; everything looked at least pretty good, many things looked really good. The asparagus was crunchy. My dad was impressed with the clams. Back at the table, he kept mentioning how small they were.
“Wait’ll you taste these clams, honey. These are the best.”
“Oh, God. They even give you a discard bowl.”
Dad’s reversal here, from “This is stupid,” to “Oh, God,” is indicative of Original Benjamin’s power in transforming the anxieties of vacationers into good attitudes. I noticed that on our second trip, even though we crowded a single buffet in a restaurant that seats a thousand, people moved around each other without conflict. Folks bumped into one another—there was no way to avoid it—but “I’m sorry”s and “You’re fine”s were given and received with grace. About half the people used more than one plate, but they didn’t seem stressed out by it. Some folks could hold two in one hand, others balanced their extras in the crook of an arm, or between thumb and chest; there are many ways.
My dad and I got in line at the crab-leg station, where one Benjamin’s employee did nothing but plate clusters of opilio crab legs three at a time and hand them to eaters. A carafe of ever-melted butter sat just beyond the crabs, with little plastic cups and lids. My dad poured butter for himself and then held the pour handle down for the next man in line—that’s how much his heart had changed.
I was feeling pretty large hearted myself. The fact that I could eat as many crab legs as I wanted, and as many coconut shrimp, a scoop of chocolate pudding, and whatever else looked good was thrilling. Plus, where I would normally have financial and emotional difficulty paying $29.99 for a meal, some buffet alchemy dissolved those worries in me. I had a sense that it was worth it, and that the money was already spent, and we were on vacation! Those hot tangles of crab legs clapping down on my plate made me feel rich.
You can tell how important crab legs are to seafood buffets by looking at some of Original Benjamin’s neighbors on the road: to the north on Highway 17 is Giant Crab, a place with a giant crab in a sailor’s hat perched over the doorway; according to the hat, the crab’s name is Tommy. North of that is Captain Bennett’s, another seafood buffet with a great white shark and a similar-sized crab caught in a net outside the front door.
Like great whites, snow crabs are not native to the waters around here. They’re shipped thousands of miles from where they walk the floors of Northern oceans, eating fallen fish parts. C. opilio, the kind of crab Benjamin’s serves, can live like that for up to fourteen years if they don’t get caught in the buffet trade.
Benjamin’s measures the amount of snow crab they serve annually by the ton. How many tons? About 250. How many individual crabs is that? Male C. opilio are typically 7 to 11 years old when it’s big enough to be sold and weighs about 1 to 2 pounds. Using 1.5 as an average crab weight, Benjamin’s serves an estimated third of a million crabs per year. The population of Myrtle Beach is about 27,000, but 14 million people come through the area annually as tourists—a lot of them eating crabs, I guess.
And of course Original Benjamin’s is just one of Myrtle Beach’s seafood buffets. In addition to Giant Crab and Captain Bennett’s, there’s Captain George’s, Crabby Mike’s, Liberty Seafood Buffet, Seafood World, and at least one Chinese buffet with a snow-crab option. There used to be a buffet called Seafare that employed live mermaids until it closed in the fall and then burned down, at night, in winter 2012. And there is Captain Benjamin’s, who came sometime after Original Benjamin’s, and whose name, you might notice, is awfully similar. I asked Maime Howard, front-of-house manager and one of the Howard children, about the relationship between the two Benjamins.
“A lot of people get confused,” she said. “But it doesn’t hurt us, and we’re not suing-type people. We really feel like the Lord has blessed us here…and we live in this town, we grew up here, and have a lot of friends here. People who know the area know that this is the place, so….”
The Howards have taken steps to make sure a person gets both good food for their $29.99 and an experience. To this end, they’ve made the place a strange museum of odd and meaningful things. Everywhere you look are salvaged boat parts and nautical implements; one dining room is decorated with an old school bus. Most of this the Howards collected from auctions in the days before Ebay, and some of it is newer, like the benches saved from the now-demolished Pavilion amusement park and a reconstructed piece from the U.S.S. Constitution. If you have to wait as part of your visit, there will surely be something to look at.
The resident artist serves to this effect, stationed in a glass-walled shop where people can come down and talk to him while he works. Frost’s ships are intricate, perfect things, each one fitted with a tiny, to-scale version of himself. On the replica Queen Elizabeth that sits in the buffet room, a miniature Frost stands on the top deck next to a woman lying facedown in a swimsuit with a big, pert butt.
It is normal for a depression to set in at the end of a buffet trip. Things start to look less dazzling and more like food in institutional quantities. Even Original Benjamin’s showed signs of wear for a minute, at the dessert bar. Someone had pulled too long on the soft serve handle and left a big dump of chocolate ice cream melting on the grates. Over at the chocolate pudding, the serving spoon had fallen into the dish. I got pudding on my hand when I reached for some, but it wasn’t depressing. I had trust in Original Benjamin’s buffet, and I could wipe my hand off later. The lady behind me did the same.