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The Smelt Fry
My neighbor Penne sent me a message: "Hey! Asking a favor: would you check if there are still tickets for the Green Door smelt fry on May 20; and, if there are, buy two for us? Obviously, we'll reimburse…."
Her message struck me as odd, not for asking a favor but for looking for tickets to a smelt fry a month before the event. I told her I would check. I called the Green Door, and the man on the phone said there were plenty of tickets. Of course, there were; the event was still a month away.
Beaver Bay is a small town (population 122 people) on Highway 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior. I seriously doubted their tickets would sell out. However, Penne seemed to think they would, so I was happy to help by getting the tickets. Two days later I stopped at the Green Door in Beaver Bay while on my way to Duluth.
The Green Door is a small pub built inside an old schoolhouse. The front door is painted green, thus the name. People meet there for a drink and to socialize. They can play a game of pool, toss bags or throw darts. It's also a gathering place for community events – like the smelt fry.
I walked to the bar. "Can I get two tickets for the smelt fry?" Then, I clarified, "I need tickets for the May 20th smelt fry."
The bartender smiled at me. "We only have one date for the smelt fry," he said as he handed me a pair of tickets. "They'll be twenty dollars, please." I gave him a twenty.
Then I asked more about the event. "Do your tickets usually sell out?"
"We sold out last year," he said. Then he explained the smelt fry was a long-running annual event. "It was an old Scandinavian tradition to have a fry when the smelt were running," Clayton said. "I'm a die-hard Scandinavian, born and raised here. We need to keep these traditions alive and pass them on to future generations. The last smelt fry was in 1991. My friend Dan and I wanted to restart the annual smelt fry.
"Thirty-one years had passed, so we had to ask some folks who were around back then about the event, and we started planning. Then, finally, in 2022, we had the first smelt fry in Beaver Bay since the early nineties." Clayton told quite a story. He seemed passionate about the event.
He also told me there would be vendors, a silent auction, live entertainment on the stage, and more. I hadn't been to a smelt fry for fifty years, but Clayton made it sound fun. "Why don't you give me one more ticket," I said.
"Just one," he asked? "Do you need one for your wife?"
I laughed, "I don't think I could get my wife to eat smelt if I dipped it in dark chocolate and served it with red wine." We shared a good laugh about that. I took my three tickets and left.
I sent Penne a picture of her tickets, teasing that I had to buy them from a ticket scalper. Although I only paid ten dollars each (face value), I figured I could turn a quick and substantial profit on these tickets, especially if the Green Door did sell out again this year.
Finally, May 20th came. I have a friend who lives alone, and I thought about asking him to join me. So, I called the Green Door to see if more tickets were available. "No, sir, we sold out over a week ago." Wow! That's okay; I would just go by myself. I wasn't sure what to expect. The last smelt fry I went to was fifty years ago.
As I got closer to the Green Door, I found both shoulders of Highway 61 were lined with diagonally parked cars, their noses in the grass. Finally, I found a spot a block or so away. A cart drove up and down the road, shuttling people to and from the event. The driver offered a ride, but it was a beautiful day, so I opted to walk.
A line of people stretched about halfway to the road in the parking lot. Then, the line turned right across the parking lot and back to the left in front of the stage, where a man was singing. I suddenly felt like I was at that smelt fry fifty years ago.
My dad took me to the American Legion in Port Washington, Wisconsin, a small town north of Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan. Dad owned a radio station in Port. The line at the Legion was long, zig-zagging through the parking lot, almost to the street. I realized we would be in line for a while, and I was hungry.
I remember my dad talking to a lot of different people to pass the time. I was impressed by the number of people he spoke to. "Do you know all those people, Dad? Are they all your friends?"
"You don't have to know people to talk to them," Dad said. "That's how you make new friends." That brief conversation turned out to be a meaningful life lesson, one that I still practice today.
Finally, we reached the head of the line. Dad handed our tickets to a man. The man said, "Hello, Dan. How's the radio business?" He obviously knew my dad.
"It's a new adventure every day," Dad answered. Then said, "You have a real good crowd tonight, Bill."
"We sure do," Bill replied. "It must be all that advertising we do on WGLB." Dad smiled.
Then Dad introduced me, "This is one of my sons, Tommy. This is his first smelt fry."
Bill shook my hand, "It's nice to meet you, Tommy. You're in for a real treat tonight." I was looking forward to it. I'd never eaten smelt, but I liked fish and was hungry. The line moved along.
Dad picked up a tray and handed me another; we each took a plate, silverware, and a napkin. A man behind the counter used tongs to put several smelt on Dad's plate. I tugged on Dad's shirt. "Dad, your fish still has the head on it," I said with concern. "Did they forget to clean it?" Dad assured me it would be okay.
Next, the man put two fish on my plate, he grabbed a couple more from the big stainless steel serving pan and reached for my tray, but I stopped him. "Thank you, but I think this is enough. I'm not very hungry."
"Suit yourself," the man said. "You can always come back for more." Then he greeted the next customer. "How ya doin' Larry?"
The next person behind the counter was serving French fries. He noticed I only had two of the small fish on my plate. He was very perceptive. "Would you like a few extra fries," he said, adding another half serving to my plate. Another man gave me a scoop of coleslaw, and finally, a lady put a dinner roll on my plate. "Enjoy your dinner," she said. "There's tarter sauce on the table over there."
I followed Dad as he made his way to a table. He paused to greet several people, introducing me to each of them, but the whole time I was distracted, staring at those two fish on my plate. I wondered, "Why did they even keep these fish? I would have thrown them back; they're too small."
When we finally sat down, Dad noticed I was eating fries and slaw but hadn't touched the fish. "What's the matter?"
"I don't think they cleaned these fish," I whispered. Although young at the time, I enjoyed fishing. I had cleaned enough fish to know what was inside them.
"This is the way smelt is eaten," Dad assured. "Here," He reached over to my plate. Then, using his knife and fork, he removed the heads from my fish and put them on his plate.
I was still concerned (if not grossed out). "What about the bones?"
"Smelt bones are so soft and small, you can eat them." Dad took another bite of his fish to show me. "Didn't you get a dinner roll?" Dad was changing the subject.
"Mine fell on the floor when we walked to the table." I didn't want to admit that I accidentally knocked it off my tray while poking my fish to make sure it was not still alive.
Dad broke his dinner roll in two, giving me half. I managed to eat one of the two fish. It tasted good, but the thought of eating a whole fish – all of it – left me a bit queasy. So Dad took my other smelt and ate it.
As we were leaving, Dad stopped to talk to yet more people. The smelt fry seemed like more than just dinner; it was a gathering where you joined friends and neighbors and made new friends.
Despite my churning tummy, I was very happy. I felt like Dad was proud of me, introducing me to each of his friends. Finally, one person said, "It's nice to meet you, Tommy. How was your dinner?"
I froze like a deer in headlights. How do I answer that? Should I lie to them or tell the truth, saying, "Y'all are pretty gross people eating whole fish like that." Dad knew I didn't care so much for the smelt. I could feel him looking at me and hear him thinking, 'If you can't say something nice….'
I had already learned much from my dad about manners and being polite. Still, I wasn't going to lie to these people. And so, I answered them honestly, "That coleslaw was delicious. Not nearly as good as Mom's, but I'm sure they tried their best." Dad was pleased with my answer; it drew a hearty laugh from him and his friends.
I knew Dad was proud of me when he gave me a pat on the back and rubbed my shoulder while boasting, "Beverly's coleslaw is the best."
In hindsight, that was probably one of the best meals I'd ever experienced: The man who sensed my disdain for the fish and offered me more fries so that I wouldn't go hungry; Dad proudly introduced me to his friends, then split his role with me when I dropped mine; Making Dad proud by using the diplomacy I'd learned from him, and making his friends laugh. I felt warm inside as I reminisced.
"Have you been to these smelt fries before," a man asked while we stood in line at the Green Door? I told him I had not. "They had one last year," he said. "But it was the first in a long time." As he told his story, the man seemed to drift off in time: "When I was a kid, my dad volunteered with the Beaver Bay fire department. They put on the smelt fries back then. My brothers and I went to the firehouse every day after school to clean the smelt they'd caught that day…." I enjoyed conversations with him and many people I'd never met before. Then I recalled my dad teaching me, 'You don't have to know someone to talk to them – that's how you make new friends.'
As I got closer to the ticket taker, I started to worry. What if they serve the smelt whole without cleaning them. I began feeling the same anxiety fifty years ago in Port Washington. "Relax, Tom," I told myself. "It can't be that bad." After all, I've read a lot of stories in the bible about people eating fish. Yet, I don't recall any stories about them cleaning fish.
A few days earlier, I researched Port Washington's smelt fry to see if they were still being held. They were not, but I learned they started offering chicken strips to customers who didn't like smelt. This was most likely to appease people like me who were traumatized as children watching adults eating a whole fish – the entire fish, bones and all.
Maybe the Green Door would also offer an alternative. Just then, something distracted me. I glanced over to the tent filled with people at picnic tables. My friend Lana waved at me to sit with her and her husband.
I finally reached the food line. There were no chicken strips, but they cleaned their smelt and removed the heads before breading and frying them. That relieved me somewhat as I carried my food to join Lana and Don.
I took a bite from my first piece of smelt, then another. It tasted good. The next smelt I picked up was larger. I carefully split it into two pieces, then pinched the end of the spine between my finger and thumb and removed the bones – an instant filet. The smelt was tasty. Along with the smelt, they served potato chips and coleslaw on the side – not nearly as good as Mom's coleslaw, but I'm sure they tried their best.
By now, it was around two in the afternoon. Don and I enjoyed a second cold draught of Hamm's beer. (Now, there's a blast from the past.) Lana, who plays the piano and organ at church, warned me: "You're singing at mass at seven tonight. You better be sober!" We shared a good laugh about that.
After we finished our beer, I walked to my car several times, stopping to talk to people. First, I thought about what a festive day it had been. Then, I recalled my first and only other smelt fry in Wisconsin.
I found it ironic: the American Legion in Port Washington hasn't done a smelt fry for a few years. Meanwhile, Clayton and Don have rekindled the tradition in Beaver Bay.
Whether in Port Washington, or Beaver Bay, a smelt fry is not just a bunch of people coming to eat fish – it's a social event, a time to make memories.
I hope Port Washington gets their smelt fry going again. Meanwhile, I will attend and support the Beaver Bay smelt fry as long as they have them. Maybe they'll add chicken strips next year, and my wife will accompany me.
When I got home, I found my neighbor Penne had stopped by, leaving a twenty-dollar bill in our mailbox. "Darn it," I laughed. "I forgot to add my scalper's fee." But, not to worry; it's not too late.
You see, Penne and John shave the best rhubarb patch in northern Minnesota. Delicious rhubarb, which they've been very generous in sharing. Maybe I'll collect my scalper's fee in rhubarb. Then, I can make a rhubarb pie and invite them to join us, not just for the pie; it will be a social event.
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