Friday, August 22, 2014

Reconnecting at the Grady Fish Fry.

Summer finally broke hard this week, cutting through months of cooler than natural temperatures to remind us that the earth’s scorching is as inevitable as the rise and fall of the tides. It would come, of course, at the time of greatest heat within the Arkansas Delta – that felt over the deep oil fryers at Ned Hardin’s farm in Grady, a sweltering event that could be considered the ring of fire for Arkansas politicians.

Sure as the Gillett Coon Supper can be cold and snowy, the Grady Fish Fry is certain to always be a blistering event, if only for those being raked over the coals or standing over those hush puppies. For me, though, it was cool and sweet, like the watermelon served by older men, as much as one would want to consume.

Each year, hundreds travel to the shriveling burg to sit in the Hardin yard and consume catfish, fries, slaw and melon together. They’re also reconnecting – generations of Grady folks who have moved away or been swept up with jobs, lives and obligations to be elsewhere most of the rest of the time. They’re young, old and in-between, rural and urban, some educated finely and others blessed with common sense. And there’s no hurry at all.

Of course, that wasn’t my thought when I was stopped dead on Interstate 530 heading south from Little Rock. Construction kept me from the very start of the experience, and from purchasing my ticket and entering right at 4 p.m. I wasn’t certain if I would still be received, coming in a half hour late. I shouldn’t have worried.

The line of signs a quarter mile away from the Hardin farm confirmed my thoughts political – there was every manner of campaign placard along U.S. 65B out a ways from the entrance. There were already cars parked alongside the road, and I followed thusly, though I would find a few moments later there was more than enough space for me to slide into the sideyard. No worries.

I crossed the road and passed the cluster of law enforcement officers directing traffic. It took just a moment to purchase my $12 ticket and to get in line for the actual dinner. To get to that point, I had to brave a gauntlet of eager politicians with buttons, stickers and fans. They were all very nice.


This welcomed me at the ticket taker’s table.


It didn’t take much to get to the catfish, which was all under this long ancient pavilion. A couple of ladies were handing each person a plate, napkin and utensils.

And then, it was pick that catfish up with some fries and get going. While it had been about 10 degrees cooler than Little Rock outside the gate, it was muggy hot inside the pavilion. That didn’t keep me from catching some shots of that marvelous catfish and the men working over the hot grease.





I will be completely honest here. I’m not a huge catfish fan. I try to stay away from cornmeal breading and I don’t think everyone does a good job of frying fish. That being said, I hadn’t even gotten a piece on my plate before I had one in my mouth. Oh golly, that was good.

Sometimes food fits the setting – and that was certainly the case here at Grady.

At the end of the pavilion, there was a mechanized affair going on. This was the famed hush puppy machine I’d heard about. The late M.E. Argo, a machinist and Grady Lions Club member, made the hush puppy machine back in the 1950s in his welding shop. Now, I won’t tell you how it was made, because for one I don’t rightly know and for two it’s unique. Go figure it out yourself. I can tell you it starts with a marvelous batter…


which is then fed into this machine.


The mechanism pumps out two dribbles of hush puppy batter at a time into very hot grease.


Men with paddles slowly shepherd them down the trench, turning them and ensuring they’re all this deep orange brown at the end.


See for yourself.



Now, if it wasn’t for the heat, I could sit and watch this all day – but we’re talking molten lava air here, bubbling bursts of greasy, wilty breeze blowing forth. It was like standing over an open furnace – which, in many ways, it was.

Of course, I’m thinking all these nice young gentlemen in their white shirts and hats are just sweet as can be. It didn’t hit me until after I saw one particularly polite fellow assisting some of the oncoming diners that these guys are prisoners.

That’s no joke. The state helps the Grady Lions Club out by providing them with some labor for the day, along with the talents of the Cummins Prison Band, which blasted out hits from The Temptations and the Eagles (which would have been even better had they known all they words to "Lyin’ Eyes").

At other stations, you can get a beverage (water or iced tea – sugar’s on the table) and the appropriate accoutrements for your catfish (tartar sauce in packets, lemon or onion wedges and slaw). I picked up my slaw and had a seat.


Of course, the prerequisite shot of my dinner:


First off, I have to tell you, those hush puppies are addictive. They’re a little sweet and they’re small, easy to pop. I preferred them to the fries and the catfish and almost everything else – though the catfish was fresh, airy and clean. No muddy bits here.

Of course, once you’re seated, you’re fair game. I was approached by no less than six different politicians while consuming my repast. Mike Ross even sat down close to me and chatted with a couple of lovely ladies.


Asa Hutchinson was also working the crowd, as were a dozen or better candidates for state offices. In fact, there were booths outside the gates not only for different contenders but to register to vote as well.

I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the spots of conversation here and there and the Cummins Prison Band (except for the aforementioned “Lyin’ Eyes,” the lyrics of which were apparently not made privy to the lead singer). There were gentlemen there twice my age who flirted and grinned, individuals greeting each other for the first time in a year or a decade, kids playing and all around folks marveling at their good fortune to be able to share such a comforting repast.

I couldn’t wait to finish my dinner, and went and found watermelon before I was done with my last fillet. Cold and sweet, melon at the Grady Fish Fry is served up under the proffered funeral home pavilion, as much as you can swallow.

This particular year’s event is the 59th occurrence. Each year it’s held at E. C. “Ned” Hardin’s place on what used to be the main drag through town. It’s run by and benefits the Lions Club, and it’s always a sellout.

The action never slowed down. The band would pause for a few minutes for a break, and the volume of the crowd swelled. At any particular point from five o’clock on, I could look towards the gate and see a significant line of individuals waiting their turn for catfish.

I never did open my tartar sauce packets. The fish was good, and I ate far more of it than I should have. I also talked Arkansas food with several individuals, lamenting the loss of Ed and Kay’s in Benton, wondering how Aron Phillips is going to do with Phillips Fish Market in Forrest City, debating whether Lackey’s or Rhoda’s or Pasquale’s tamales were the best and see-sawing over the merits of sweet versus unsweet tea. There were hundreds in attendance, yet I never met a stranger.

These community events may have become political just because of who attends them, but they are not political events per se. They are community gatherings, celebrations, homecomings – exactly the sort of thing you need in places like Grady, where the population has shifted away.

I could have stayed all evening, but it didn’t seem quite fair to take up the table space with so many waiting. Besides, the longer I stuck around, the more catfish I ended up eating, and as it was I felt like I needed to be rolled out on a wheelbarrow. Yes, the catfish is that good. If all catfish were that good, I’d eat a whole lot more of it.

Even today, hours later, I’m still craving those hush puppies and wondering if I could scooch a recipe out of someone. Next year, I’m taking my daughter. Hunter would be all over some hush puppies, and I bet she’d be dancing to the band.

Too late to go this year, but do plan for next year. Follow the I Like Grady Facebook page, and mark your calendar for the third Thursday in August. You’ll have a real good time.

For an intriguing story on the Cummins Prison Band, visit Kate Jordan's blog.

7 comments:

  1. I have read your article post. Awesome post. Most informative. It’s a very useful post. Its always great to find good honest practical content. Thank you so much.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is nice web. Thank you for such a valuable article on such a interesting topic.
    I really appreciate for this great information...

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  3. Delicious, look your Fish Fry is great, Kat! I am hungry and i want it now :)

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  4. For me, though, it was cool and sweet, like the watermelon served by older men, as much as one would want to consume. This is agreat post, Kat !

    ReplyDelete
  5. Clear, informative, simple. Love your post!

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  6. Hello Kat Robinson,
    This is a very nice article post. Thank you so much for sharing this. This is most informative. It is a very useful and valuable post. The food is also very delicious.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It’s a very informative post. I love your Fish Fry. It is great, Kat!

    ReplyDelete

Be kind.