The common smelt gets little respect from fancy restaurants, gourmet chefs or seafood aficionados, but it has special powers that exceed the fanciest of its seafood brethren of salmon, lobster or even caviar.
Smelt brings people together like no fancy feast. Smelt brings people together in its gathering, in its preparation and in its consumption. The pursuit of the small anadromous fish is a group activity best accomplished on shorelines or streams feeding into the Great Lakes late at night between 10 pm and 2 am. Groups of smelt fishermen notoriously – and traditionally - bite the head off their first smelt catch of the season. The season in these parts is usually in April and lasts a couple weeks. Despite dropping smelt numbers in Lake Michigan, the tradition continues in Milwaukee underneath the south end of the Hoan Bridge on Jones Island where groups of smelt fishermen gather.
Smelt is a common fish enjoyed seasonally by common people in uncommon numbers. It’s a valuable fish, but not an expensive fish. Bar owners even give away free smelt to attract customers. Smelt’s value is in the bonding it brings to groups of people.
Friday night, my nephew Evan and I made a pilgrimage to Harvard, Illinois for a smelt fry and some bonding. Evan is also my Godson and my kindred spirit.
Harvard was once known as the Milk Center of the World, because seven dairies had plants with 15 miles of the town and they were producing more milk than any place in the United States. Harvard commemorates its milk heritage with a statue of Harmilda the cow in their town center and their annual Milk Days Festival which still includes painting their streets white, but no longer includes the Milk Queen leaping out of a giant milk bottle. Milk Days, started in 1942, is the longest running festival in Illinois. Evan and I paid a visit to Harmilda (blending of “Harvard Milk Days”) before moving on to the smelt fry.
Along with more than 1,300 others, we stood in line to collectively consume more than 40 half barrels of beer, a ton (literally) of smelt and an equal amount of homemade cole slaw at the 66thAnnual Harvard Sportsman’s Club Smelt Fry. The lure of all you can eat smelt (and potato chips, bread and cole slaw) and all you can drink Pabst Blue Ribbon is a tradition in the Illinois border community that stretches back to 1947.
The smelt fry is a full community event. I am loosely tied in through my sister who lives in Harvard and is married to the nephew of the Harvard Sportsman’s Club’s founder, Joseph Perenchio. He and several other local men founded the Harvard Sportman’s Club in 1946. Club membership is limited to 300 and there is a waiting list to join. The smelt fry however is open to the public. Seventy-five of the club members volunteer to make the event an annual success. There are ticket sellers, beer pourers, merchandise salesmen, cooks, raffle ticket sellers, servers, parking attendants, and even official smelt security.
The small army is needed to coordinate the gluttonous four hour feeding frenzy. Being a veteran Harvard Sportsman’s Club Smelt Fry attendee (this was my second consecutive, straight smelt fry in a row without missing any in between!), I knew the key to avoiding the megaline was early arrival. Doors open at 5 pm, but the line begins a week in advance…or 30 minutes or so anyway. The PBR beer truck outside provided a rallying point for the early arrivals. The beer was free with purchase of the $15 dinner ticket. For $2 extra, patrons receive a stylish green plastic commemorative cup that permits users to skip the beer line similar to Disney World’s FASTPASS.
Our wait in line required only 20 minutes outside (in the cold, but no rain like last year). The time passed quickly as Evan confided to me that he can barely believe how good his life is right now with a new lovely fiancée, a new paramedic degree and a new firefighting job. I confided to him that the knowledge of all you can eat smelt just minutes away made me feel likewise.
We inched along for another 20 minutes inside the Sportsman’s Club past taxidermy filled walls and pictures of wild game hunt victims. The first stop is the beer window which fortuitously arrived precisely when the PBR evaporated from the bottom of my commemorative bottomless cup. The line then tantalizingly passes an open window allowing hungry Harvardites to peek in on the preparation process.
More than a dozen club members are busy in the kitchen including the all-important job of breading the smelt which arrives clean and cooking it in five quick-recovery fryers which continuously fry five to seven pounds of smelt every seven minutes. The Sportsman’s Club narrowly averted disaster this year when the original smelt shipment arrived PRE-BREADED! Luckily, there was sufficient time to ship it back and secure the fresh, smelt suitable for on-site breading that the community craves.
Evan and I loaded up on smelt, cole slaw, bread, potato chips and plenty of cocktail sauce. Evan, serving as our table captain, kept us fully stocked with all the refills and made sure the bottomless pitcher of Pabst, was indeed bottomless. The family style table settings provoked camaraderie with our table mates. The family next to us included a veteran firefighter whose colleague turned out to be Evan’s former mentor at the Harvard fire department. The firefighters at the table quickly developed a bond over the cocktail sauce and PBR.
We stayed for several helpings of smelt and slaw, waited for the next 50/50 raffle ticket to be drawn (just missed by two ticket numbers), chatted up the servers and our table mates then made our way back outside to the beer tent. After taking advantage of our priority plastic mug one last time, we made our way back past Harmilda to my sister’s house and chatted about the future – his so extensive and secure and mine relatively brief and vague.
The smelt fry had served its purpose by bringing people closer – old friends, new friends, a community. Evan and I are close even when we’re not together. Our mutual respect and kindred spirit guide us both, whether we’re in the same room or not. We don’t spend a lot of time together though occasionally we set out on adventures – sometimes grand like our visit to thank the park ranger who saved my life 40 years earlier and sometimes not so grand like a smelt fry in Harvard, Illinois. But always we come away with a better understanding of each other and of life. And for that alone, I am grateful for smelt.