Marlene Hieronymus has just watched a movie about Judy Garland, the Hollywood icon who tragically died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks after her 47th birthday.
“She lived a horrific life,” Hieronymus says. “She was made to entertain. She was lonely.”
Hieronymus likes to learn about the lives of interesting people. She sometimes watches movies about them, but usually it is through books.
“I like to read autobiographies,” she says. “It’s interesting to see how lives are constructed.”
Perhaps she’s interested in them because she can relate. Hieronymus has led quite the remarkable life herself, one that would be worthy of a book or film. The synopsis surely would gain at least strong regional interest:
A girl is born in West Virginia in 1948, in the wildly optimistic time after World War II when anything seems possible. Her father is in the Air Force, and her mother works for the FBI. She dreams of being a lawyer, but instead becomes an old-fashioned telephone operator, a Piedmont Airlines stewardess in the days when that word wasn’t politically incorrect, a fishing and seafood market pioneer, a restaurateur, a celebrity chef and a published author.
“Life is an adventure,” she says.
Anyone who’s been around the greater Wilmington area for a whilesurely knows that Hieronymus is synonymous with seafood. They’ve heard tales of the famous Hieronymus Brothers — Glenn, George, Harvey and Cordy — who taught themselves how to be commercial fishermen.
What they might not know is the woman behind the scenes. Glenn’s wife was right there with them, handlining fish, figuring out the best way to land a coveted catch, and becoming chief cook and bottle washer for their Hieronymus Brothers Restaurant.
It’s not quite where she thought she’d end up. She dreamed of being a lawyer, but instead became a fisherman. She was a Southern lady who wore her best Sunday dress and white gloves to the airline interview, and became the Fish Lady.
“Seafood was a whole new ballgame for me,” she says.” We were definitely pioneers. You just did it. You want your business to be successful, so you just get in there and do it.”
The business proved to be incredibly successful. Their fish market supplied a fresh catch to many, and the restaurant became a destination eatery for fresh, flavorful seafood. Not bad, considering there really wasn’t a business plan. In fact, the name Hieronymus might have remained anonymous if it hadn’t been for expensive dock fees.
Fish certainly didn’t feature in any what-do-you-want-to-be daydreams when Marlene was growing up in West Virginia. But it was clear she would be successful in whatever she turned to.
She landed a job as a telephone operator when she graduated from high school. Think of an old black-and-white movie with an operator rerouting calls through a huge, old-fashioned switchboard. That’s what she did.
“When a light would come on the switchboard, I would put my plug in and say, ‘Long distance,’” she says. “Then they put me on the directory assistance board because I could remember numbers.”
She worked for General Telephone for two years, until a friend told her about another opportunity. Piedmont Airlines, which flew out of Bluefield, West Virginia, was hiring stewardesses.
“I went up there in my Sunday dress and little white gloves,” she says. “I filled out an application. They hired me on the spot. I packed up and moved to Winston-Salem. I took the school and had a flight two days after I graduated.”
She began on 44-passenger turboprops in 1968, moved to 60-passenger planes, and then to the top-of-the-line 737s. It was a time when customer service was still paramount on airlines.
“We had two flight attendants for 90 passengers,” she says. “We would serve catered meals. The flight attendants would take orders on the ground for drinks. As soon as the airplane went wheels up we would take the drinks, then serve food, then make and serve coffee. All within 45 minutes.”
While the cabin service was taking place, there was some amazing flying from the cockpit.
“I flew with cowboys,” she says. “They were something else. These guys flew in the mountains of West Virginia. You had to be a cowboy to fly in that. Small towns, up and back down again. It was a lot of fun. I loved my job.”
She also fell in love with a handsome young pilot. Glenn Hieronymus was a copilot flying out of Winston-Salem when they met. The couple got engaged and purchased a 41-foot Hatteras. They docked it at Wrightsville Beach, imagining an idyllic life of frequent trips to the coast to take the boat out.
But the trips weren’t as frequent as they had hoped, and the costs were more than they expected.
“It got too expensive, so we decided to change it into a charter boat,” she says. “Charter fishing didn’t pay much, but at least it was a tax write-off for Glenn.”
Their life took a dramatic change after one particularly memorable trip.
“We caught 228 Spanish mackerel once,” she says. “I said, ‘What are we going to do with all this fish?’ He said, ‘We’ll sell it to local restaurants.’”
The charter boat became a commercial fishing boat, and in 1972, a business was born.
“I quit the airlines and became a fisherwoman,” Hieronymus says.
Glenn’s brothers joined the business. They were all landlubbers, so there was a steep learning curve.
“I felt that we were pioneers,” Marlene says. “The only thing we knew about fish was shrimp in a cocktail glass. Glenn grew up in Kentucky and I grew up in West Virginia. And there’s not an ocean there. When we would go out fishing, I would go on the boat. We handlined for black sea bass, and that was a lot of work. We started using old crab pots that we baited with fresh menhaden. I would make flags. We had real long bamboo poles, and flags with numbers on them. We would drop the trap down and mark it on the map. We would have 20 traps, all numbered. We’d leave them out for a couple of hours or overnight. We caught 1,600 pounds of black sea bass one time.”
The fish were hand-packed on ice — “so it didn’t bruise” — loaded into an 18-wheeler and sent to New York City. It was especially popular in Chinatown.
“We had a good market for our black sea bass,” she says.
It was time for a second boat, this one a 44-foot trawler. With an abundance of shrimp and fresh fish coming in, they launched the next phase.
“In 1972 there was a seafood market where Motts Channel [Seafood] is,” Marlene says. “He sold shrimp. No one had a market for grouper, flounder, red snapper. We started that.”
The family bought a bar at the end of Stokely Road, the Sea Bag, and converted it into a seafood packing house. The demand was more than they could supply from the two boats, so they began buying from other fishermen.
“The fishermen would unload the fish and sell them,” she says. “One of our fishermen was Captain Noah. His boat was the Ark. There was the Mr. X, the old Nite Train, the Brenda Lee. We made it so fishermen could make a living.”
s the business grew, so did their own fleet. There was a 71-foot steel trawler, and a boat to handline for red snapper, grouper and mahi-mahi. They commissioned a custom-made boat from Florida for swordfish.
“It was a business in progress,” Marlene says. “There were always new things to do and learn.”
They were swimming in fish, so the next step followed naturally.
“Glenn said we need to open a seafood restaurant,” she says. “That’s when we bought 5035 Market Street. It had been an Italian restaurant. We opened in 1980 with white tablecloths, candles and a piano bar. When we opened it up it was a lot of fun, a lot of work.”
The brothers didn’t have to look too far to find a willing volunteer to prepare the food.
“Glenn loved to fish, and I loved to cook,” Marlene says. “Seafood was a whole new ballgame for me. I taught myself how to prepare it. I used to read all the gourmet magazines, I read Bon Appetite, Food & Wine. I used to watch Julie Child — oh man, she’s my idol. Whatever I did with chicken, I could do with fish. Whatever I did with beef, I could do with a fish.”
She quickly took to it and was soon creating her own signature dishes, including what became the restaurant’s calling card.
“We were filleting the grouper one day,” she says. “The skeletons of the grouper, we would toss them to the side. There was a lot of meat on that skeleton. I took them to the restaurant, boiled them and took the meat off. I created grouper pâté. We’d serve it with captain’s wafers to everyone who came in, for free. People would wait an hour, two hours at a time.”
Marlene soon added chief marketer to her many job titles.
She signed up for a week-long cooking seminar at the renowned Greenbriar in West Virginia to learn from a Venice chef.
“She did a salmon mousse stuffed scallops,” Marlene says. “When it ended, we graduated with a white-glove dinner, like they do for presidents at the Greenbriar. I thought, ‘They need to have our seafood at the Greenbriar.’ I talked to the chef, and we got his account.”
Jim Burns, host of the popular Jim Burns Show on WECT, was a regular patron at the restaurant. One day he asked for advice on how to prepare pink snapper.
“I told him how to fix it,” she says. “I said, ‘Mr. Burns, you need me to come on your show and teach the women of Wilmington how to cook seafood.’ I did it for about six years.”
That led to a gig on national television when the Today Show was doing a story on a famous passengeer ship that was calling at Wrightsville Beach.
“The Today Show called the chamber and asked for a local celebrity chef. They mentioned me,” Marlene says. “New York called me. They said we want you to be the guest celebrity chef on board. I had just finished a soft-shell crab workshop in New Bern, so I did soft-shell crab presentation.”
That led to more appearances on the Today Show and the Food Network.
The combination of a first-class restaurant with a celebrity chef and the explosion of the film industry in Wilmington led to many celebrity encounters — Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Paul Newman.
“And Robert Duvall,” she says. “He and Laura Dern and Diane Ladd would come in three times a week.”
Initially, Duvall, in town to film “Rambling Rose,” was almost turned away. The restaurant was closed to host a Pink Ladies luncheon when two men dressed in black knocked on the door.
“I said, ‘We’re closed for lunch, I’ve got 88 ladies in here. But you can come in and see a menu to see if you want to come back for dinner,’” she says. “I told him he looked so familiar. He said I’m Robert Duvall. I said you were in ‘Days of Thunder.’ I sat him at the bar and made him two plates of soft-shell crabs.”
The movie business led to another business for Hieronymus Brothers. The restaurant was in demand for wrap parties, so they started a catering sideline in 1984.
These days, Marlene calls herself semi-retired. They sold the restaurant post 9/11. There’s an occasional appearance for her on local television to prepare a dish or at an event to sign copies of her cookbook, appropriately titled “The Fish Lady.” She has plenty of time to read autobiographies, and to reflect on her own pioneering story.
Cook Like the Fish Lady
Marlene Hieronymus is passionate about taking the intimidation away from cooking our fresh, local seafood. “It’s fast, healthy and easier than you think!” she says. Here are a couple of recipes from her cookbook, “The Fish Lady.”
Lemon & Herb Crusted Grouper
4 tsp chopped fresh dill
4 tsp chopped fresh parsley leaves
4 tsp chopped fresh chervil leaves
2 tsp cracked black pepper
4 (6-ounce) grouper fillets, skinned
1 ½ tsp salt
4 tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
4 cups cleaned fresh arugula leaves
4 Tbsp olive oil
In shallow bowl combine the lemon zest, dill, parsley, chervil and black pepper. Season the fish with 1 ¼ tsp. of salt, then lightly brush 1 side of each piece with 1 tsp. of Dijon mustard. Firmly press the mustard-coated side of each fillet into the lemon-herb mixture. In a skillet, preferably non-stick, heat the vegetable oil. Place the fillets, coated side down, into the hot oil. Cook until the crust turns golden, 3 to 3 ½ minutes. Flip and continue to cook until the fish flakes easily, 3 minutes.
In a medium bowl toss the arugula with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt. Divide between 4 plates and place one of the fillets onto each mound of arugula. Top with cherry tomato salad and finish with a drizzle of the remaining olive oil and serve immediately.
1 lb. fresh scallops
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup diced avocado
½ cup minced red onion
½ cup finely chopped seeded tomato
¼ cup cilantro
2 Tbsp minced jalapeno
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne
¼ tsp cumin
Pat the scallops dry and place in a glass bowl. Cover with the lime juice and marinate in the refrigerator until opaque, about 3 hours. Place the seafood in a clean bowl and reserve the lime juice. Add the remaining ingredients, gently stirring to mix. Add reserved lime juice to taste. Refrigerate for 6 hours and serve chilled in a tall martini or cocktail glass.
*to marinate the scallops faster, cut into 4 parts if they are sea scallops
Cherry Tomato Salad
(serve grouper over this or on the side)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
¼ cup diced red onion
1 tsp lemon zest
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a medium bowl, combine cherry tomatoes, red onion, lemon zest, and parsley. Toss well. Add vinegar and olive oil and season with salt and black pepper. Serve with lemon and herb crusted grouper.