Jay Copp 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Lions grill, bake, roast, steam and fry foods that locals crave and devour year after year. Any way you slice it, the food fuels deliciously important causes. Watermelon Sunland-Tujunga Lions California Mark Twain once remarked that when you’ve tasted watermelon, you know what the angels eat. He could have said once you’ve been to the Sunland- Tujunga Lions Club Watermelon Festival in California you know how religiously obsessed people can be about watermelons. Admission to the festival, begun 51 years ago, is discounted for people in watermelon costumes, so you may see a guy with a hollowed-out melon as a helmet. Or three friends standing side by side with T-shirts that form a large melon slice. Vendors sell watermelon lemonade, deep-fried watermelon and ribs with slices of watermelon. The watermelon recipe contest features watermelon chili, watermelon gazpacho and a sunland summer salad. At another booth, a culinary instructor explains how to make pickled watermelon rind and Pico de Gallo Watermelon, a salsa. You can ogle the Watermelon Queen or King, spin the Melon Wheel for a prize, view the watermelon carving demonstrations or greased watermelon races, and listen to bands play on the Melon Stage. Or wander over to a long, red vinyl tarp where fairgoers pucker their lips and spit seeds. The record is 69 feet. Competitors who break that mark can win $500. The human tricks are funny but perhaps the most intriguing sight is the WatermelonOmatic, a slicing machine introduced two years ago by Lion Ara Zeithlian, a bakery owner. The machine creates uniform slices of watermelon at the speed of 40 slices per minute. Melon lovers grab the slices right off a conveyor belt and munch away. The machine is the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread. Apple Butter Monett Lions Missouri For the uninitiated, apple butter can be confusing. It contains no butter. It’s been described as a crankedup apple sauce. But unlike apple sauce it’s not usually eaten by itself. Instead, it’s typically used as a spread on bread, biscuits and pancakes. Some people swirl it into ice cream or even use it in lieu of barbecue sauce when grilling pork. Basically, foodies use any excuse they can to consume apple butter, applesauce that is slowly cooked until it thickens into a glossy, caramelized spread. Held in October, Apple Butter Makin’ Days in Mount Vernon in southwest Missouri is perhaps the premier event of its kind, and the Monett Lions are one of only two vendors there. Last year, the club used 6,000 apples to produce three 180-gallon batches of apple butter. Pint bottles cost $5. Lions sold $35,000 of apple butter. “We give out samples. Lot of people will say, ‘Never tried it.’ They end up getting a bottle,” says Lion Steve Wise. Decades ago and even today making apple butter is a family event, given the amount of labor required. Apples are peeled, cores removed and seeds flecked off before cooking. Until a few years ago the Monett Lions did all those laborious steps with Jonathan apples. Now they buy Northern Spy apples from Wisconsin that are precut. “We were very careful about finding an apple with the same flavor as Jonathan. You can’t tell the difference,” says Wise. The ingredient list is short: apples, sugar, cinnamon and water. Lions cook their sauce for 13 to 14 hours in four 40-gallon copper kettles and one 50- gallon stainless steel kettle. The club uses propane burners and a mechanical stirrer. The Lions’ apple butter has to pass a thickness test before considered done. “We get a plate, put some on it and turn the plate upside down. It won’t fall off,” says Wise. Some of the apple butter is made without sugar. “My wife uses that in her cheesecake recipe. It works,” says Wise. Apple butter is far from the only food item sold by the 58 members of the Monett Lions Club. They barbecue 1,400 chicken halves on the Fourth of July, and also sell rib eye steaks and strawberry ice cream on other occasions. Once a month they staff the kitchen at a church and feed the needy. But apple butter has been their calling card since 1982. “It tastes like what grandma used to make,” Wise says proudly. Blackberry Slug Bremerton Central Lions Washington OK, some fairgoers in Bremerton, Washington, can’t resist pulling out their smartphone and making an obvious wisecrack. But they don’t bite into their phones. They save their appetite for the real thing. The Blackberry Festival on Labor Day weekend celebrates edible blackberries. You can buy wines, sodas and pies flavored by the dark-purple berries. You also can wolf down a slug. Or two, three or six. A slug is basically a donut stuffed with blackberry jam and topped with powdered sugar. The Bremerton Central Lions have sold the slugs at the festival for more than 20 years. Located on Puget Sound near Seattle, Bremerton is blackberry heaven. “If you disturb a piece of ground, you’ll see a blackberry. They’re ubiquitous,” says Wyn Birkenthal, past president. Lions sell bag after bag of the popular slug. They buy the donuts and use their own special machine to, well, jam the jam into the donut. While the customers munch happily, Lions tell them of their big fall fundraiser, a seafood dinner and auction. The slug is a calorie-rich pastry. But blackberries have antioxidants that are said to fight cancer. The ancient Greeks believed the berry cured diseases of the mouth and throat, and Blue and Gray soldiers in the Civil War agreed on momentary truces to forage for blackberries, an antidote to dysentery. But here’s what’s important about the slug. The Kiwanis club a few booths over sells a blackberry pie. Reach for a slug. “Oh, it’s better,” says Birkenthal. Steamed Oysters Fayetteville Massey Hill Lions North Carolina Oysters are often described as “an acquired taste.” They must be eaten or cooked alive. The writer Jonathan Swift said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Willie Chason of the Fayetteville Massey Hill Lions Club in North Carolina doesn’t disagree. “Some people think they are slimey,” he says. But the 700 customers who come to the club’s all-youcan- eat steamed oyster roast in late January think differently. At least 400 are regulars who come year after year to the roast, which began in 1972. “They see me in the summer and say, can’t wait until the roast,” says Chason. Many patrons bring their own knives, towel and glove to make the shucking easier. One man brings a customized, homemade knife made from flattened nails. The customers crowd around plywood tabletops that rest atop 55-gallon drums. The table has a hole in the middle for the shells. “People might not know each other but it doesn’t matter. They’re like family at the tables,” says Chason. Fayetteville is about 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. But the club prefers oysters from the Gulf Coast, delivered t o the clubhouse on Friday night in 300 burlap sacks, 110 pounds each. Their feet protected by waders, Lions use high-pressure hoses to clean the mudencrusted oysters. Lions steam the oysters in four massive, gas-fired cookers, each capable of holding 30 steel containers. The highvolume production line separates the Lions from any competitors and makes the event the state’s largest of its kind. “The high school does one, the Chamber of Commerce. You eat a few and wait. We keep ours coming,” says Chason, one of 92 members in his club. The cost to eat is $30 at the door. Hush puppies, iced tea and cocktail sauce are available. The line begins to form nearly an hour before the doors open. There’s a line at the end of the day, too. Any oysters left are purchased, often for parties for the upcoming Super Bowl. Traditional Salmon Coupeville Lions Washington For hundreds of years Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest centered their diet on the salmon that each year returned from the open sea to spawn in rivers. Anthropologists estimate that 60 percent of the nutrients consumed by the Native Americans in the region came from either salmon or steelhead trout. The second oldest town in Washington, Coupeville sits on the sea on Whidbey Island. For years town leaders have honored the area’s heritage and many current residents’ ethnicity; a water festival features tribal canoe races and Native arts, crafts, dances and storytelling. Coupeville Lions decided to follow suit in 2006 by hosting a traditional salmon feast each September. Lions cook the salmon over an alder wood fire, as Native Americans have done for centuries. The wood smoke imparts a rich flavor. The Lions use a steel-grated barbecue pit, not wooden planks as the Native Americans do. But overseeing the grill has been Billy Bailey of the Samish tribe. Fellow tribe member Rosie James has prepared traditional fry bread, similar to a funnel cake. James also entertains patrons by singing Native American songs. Last year the fish was ultra-fresh. A tribe near Olympia caught the salmon for the barbecue the day before the event. Other than olive oil to prevent sticking and light sprinkles of sea salt, the fish was grilled as was. “Just fish– good fish,” says Lion Bob Johnson. Barbecue Mutton Mokane Lions, Missouri Mutton gets no respect. A troll in The Hobbitwhined: “Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer.” The gentle Gandhi, a resolute vegetarian, became riled at the thought of eating mutton: “If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef-tea or mutton, even under medical advice, I would prefer death.” Modern New Yorkers also take their shots against mutton. On “Seinfeld,” Jerry dated a girl whose specialty was mutton. Not liking it, Jerry secretly stuffed the mutton in the pockets of a coat that Elaine later wore and the unwitting Elaine was tailed by a pack of snarling dogs. When she found out, she shouted at Jerry’s girlfriend, “Thanks for mutton!” Mutton does get respect in a small rural city in Missouri. In Mokane, population 300, Lions have served up barbecue mutton sandwiches at the Mokane Lions Club Fall Festival since the 1960s. The sauce is a secret recipe of the Taylor family, whose members have been Lions. Mutton is meat from sheep at least two years old. The Lions’ mutton is made in a huge cooker–“like a crockpot blown up a hundred times,” says Dee Pfeiffer, past club president. A Lion stirs the meat with “a stick like a boat paddle,” she adds. Pfeiffer knows a thing or two about mutton. Her girls raised sheep as part of 4-H, and her family made their own mutton. She’s even eaten mutton in Ireland. The Lions’ mutton passes the test. “It’s good,” she says. “It tastes like barbecued beef. I can’t really tell the difference. The young people say they can, but I think it’s just their imagination.” Aye, there’s the rub. Even in Mokane mutton doesn’t get its due. The younger folks generally don’t order mutton sandwiches. “We’ll always have it but we might have less of it,” says Pfeiffer. So the club will also continue to sell its barbecued beef, hamburgers and hot dogs. Fried Smelt Parkers Prairie Lions Minnesota So small they are often used for bait, smelt once swam in abundance in Lake Superior, and in the 1960s and 1970s netters easily hauled home buckets of the fish. Smelt fries were part of the Minnesota lifestyle. Then lake trout preyed on smelt, and smelt runs and smelt fries dwindled. But the annual smelt fry of the Parkers Prairie Lions in central Minnesota remains popular. The lore surrounding the fish fry is nearly as inviting as the main entrée. Come for the fish, stay for the fish stories. The fry began in 1964, a few months after the club was chartered. Lions not only caught the smelt in local rivers, but they were so happy with the turnout they immortalized the results in ink on the wooden posts at the fire department where they held the event. The firefighters didn’t object, so Lions for the next dozen years or so similarly posted the final tallies until the club finally committed them to paper. So the club knows exactly how they’ve done: they’ve served 45,114 pounds of smelt to 50,127 customers. In recent years, they’ve drawn nearly 1,500 patrons, not bad in a town of 1,000. Of course, immortality can be a fleeting thing, even for a fire house, which exploded and burned down in the mid- 1990s. So the club now holds the fish fry at the town’s $1.5 million community center, which the club spearheaded in 2007. The Parkers Prairie Event Center is a large, modern building–again, not too shabby for a small town. Both the all-male Parkers Prairie Lions Club and the all-female Parkers Prairie Pride Lions Club meet there. Right, two clubs and 67 Lions in a little town–not bad at all. That’s what customers say about the smelt. The fish are pulled from Lake Michigan just a day or two before the Lions get them. They douse them in a secret coating before dumping them in the deep fryer, full of beef tallow. The plate of fish comes with French fries. Anyone dieting is free to load up on the cole slaw. Part I of “We Serve” ran in October. Visit www.lionmagazine.org to read Part I.
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