Family, friends and a fish fry
Published 10:49 pm Monday, November 21, 2016
To hear Tom Sparling and his crew of corn meal-dunkers tell it, hush puppies are the main attraction at the semi-annual Chuckatuck Volunteer Fire Department fish fry.
The secret, he says, is the beer.
The high yeast content of cheap beer — his recipe once called for Old Milwaukee, but now uses Budweiser Red — makes the hush puppies come out light and fluffy.
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Sparling has been making the corn meal treats for 40 years. During that time, he figures “a couple million” dollops have been deep fried on the way to the plates of eager diners.
During September’s fish fry in Chuckatuck, more than 300 pounds of hush puppy mix found its way — one hot, golden, bite-sized ball at a time — into the bellies of hundreds of guests.
Whether it’s because of the hush puppies, the fried tilapia filets or the fellowship, there’s always a packed house when CVFD holds a fish fry.
During the course of three to four hours, twice a year, the department’s volunteers, along with helpers from the Chuckatuck Ruritan Club, the Chuckatuck Civic League and a variety of individuals pitching in for the cause, as many as 1,700 people have their plates and to-go containers filled. And when they’re done, they can come back for more at this all-you-can-eat extravaganza.
“The driving force is the fire department,” says Chief Jacob Johnson. “But we couldn’t do it without the community.”
From Johnson’s perspective, in fact, the fish fry really isn’t about the fish — or the hush puppies.
“The main thing that has always been the same is the community aspect,” he said. “People come in and sit down and they see each other every year at the fish fry.”
As Suffolk’s only all-volunteer fire department, CVFD relies on the fundraiser for much of its support, netting between $8,000 and $10,000 per event.
Fish, corn meal, potatoes and drinks are all purchased, but the desserts are donated, and all the work is done by volunteers.
And it all starts with a potato-cutting party in the firehouse bay on the Friday night before Saturday’s event. Chairs arranged in a broad circle are occupied by members of the Ruritan Club and some firefighters, each with a knife in hand and two buckets at his feet. Whole potatoes, peeled by a machine the department has used for more than 30 years, are grabbed from one bucket and then cut into cubes, which are dropped into the other bucket.
The atmosphere is light and congenial. There’s a bit of lighthearted ribbing, and one young boy takes whole potatoes from his father’s bucket and drops them into that of another man nearby.
On Saturday, they’ll be boiled in industrial-sized pots, one of the improvements to the process through the years. In days past, Johnson says, each of the ladies in the community would be given two or three pots to take home and boil.
Long before the first guests arrive at the event — an hour early, but patient — the firehouse has been cleared of equipment, long rows of tables have been set with malt vinegar, salt and pepper and sugar containers, and the fish fryers have been cleaned and filled with fresh oil.
All 48 or so members of the fire department are on duty this day.
“The second Saturday in June and the last Saturday in September — it’s what you do,” Johnson says.
Some are working the hush puppy line. Some are breading fish. Some are frying the breaded fish. Some are taking potatoes off the stove. Some are carrying cooked food to the warmers. And some are preparing to serve.
“Don’t act like you’re a visitor!” someone gruffs at a late-arriving firefighter. “Get to work!”
“Pretty much, from 3:30 on, it’s wide open,” Johnson says.
Cars have begun to line up for carryout orders, and the first sit-down customers are being served.
Mike and Helen Eggleston of Surry County are among the first to have their plates filled. They’ve been coming to the fish fry for three years, following the recommendation of Herb DeGroft, whom they know from the Smithfield VFW post.
“He said it was the best fish fry around,” Mike says.
Lots of folks seem to agree.
“It’s for a good cause, and they’re delicious,” Suffolk resident Glenda Wadford says as she picks up meals to go. “Everybody is so friendly.”
And we hear the hush puppies are the best.