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The annual Grady Fish Fry

There are certain annual events in this state that I try never to miss.

My favorite winter event is the Slovak Oyster Supper. Held on a Friday night in late January each year, this men’s only dinner attracts hundreds of people to the small farming community in southern Prairie County to eat raw oysters, devour fried oysters, buy raffle tickets and talk loudly. The Knights of Columbus put on the supper to benefit the Catholic parish at Slovak.

If you attend, wear your camouflage and be prepared to wait outside in a long line. It’s usually cold, but the wait and the many wisecracks you hear while in the line are an integral part of the overall experience of Slovak Oyster Supper night.

While the pilgrimage to Slovak marks late January, the unofficial end of summer and the start of the school year is marked by a trip to the Grady Fish Fry. I was there again Thursday night for the 54th annual event sponsored by the Grady Lions Club. I have probably been to 20 of the 54 fish fries.

Now that the U.S. 65 bypass has opened around Grady, you no longer pass by the sign that proclaims the fish fry is “Always The Third Thursday In August.” Hopefully, that sign will be moved to the new highway.

People from all over southeast Arkansas gather in the Ned Hardin pecan grove to eat fish and visit with each other. The event begins at 4 p.m. and lasts until 8 p.m. Arkansas State Police troopers and Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies line the road to direct you off the highway and show you where to park.

You line up, purchase your ticket for $12 per head and then walk under the shed for all of the fried catfish, hushpuppies and french fries you can eat. You can watch the catfish being cooked while you’re standing in line.

You can also see one of my favorite contraptions in Arkansas, the famed Grady hushpuppy machine, which was constructed years ago from various pieces of equipment found on local farms. This device represents Arkansas ingenuity at its best as it spits out one hushpuppy after another into the hot grease. I don’t have the words to adequately describe it. You just have to see it in action.

Years ago, I brought then-Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Washington bureau chief Kathy Kiely to the Grady Fish Fry. A Pittsburgh native who loved visiting the rural South, Kathy most enjoyed seeing the hushpuppy machine at work.

It’s normally hot and humid on the third Thursday in August. Sweating profusely while eating your fish is part of the routine. This year was the most pleasant weather I ever remember for this event, and it seemed to bring out the biggest crowd in recent years.

On the way down to Grady, we paid a visit to Bobby Garner at the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff. Bobby was busy grilling hamburgers as usual on a Thursday night, but he said that business is always slow on the third Thursday evening in August. That’s because many of his regulars go to Grady.

Outside the shed in the pecan grove are the drinks (iced tea or water), the coleslaw and the sliced onions. Dessert consists of big slices of watermelon served by prisoners. The volunteer workforce is courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Correction. The prisoners, dressed in all-white prison uniforms, also help clean the tables as guards walk around and keep an eye on things. The prison band plays. Sitting under the giant pecan trees while eating catfish and listening to a prison band is, frankly, about as Southern as it gets.

The $12 tickets aren’t the only source of revenue for the Grady Lions Club. As you drive in, you’re given a program packed with ads from all over southeast Arkansas. The program ran 146 pages this year. Businesses from Grady, Dumas, Pine Bluff, Pickens, Monticello, McGehee, Little Rock, DeWitt, Star City, Gould, Lake Village, Dermott, Eudora, Tillar and Altheimer had ads. Everything from farms to farm supply companies to funeral homes to restaurants were represented. If they do business in southeast Arkansas, they likely had an ad in this program.

Some of the state’s political figures traditionally buy ads. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter was represented in the program. So was land commissioner Mark Wilcox, U.S. Rep. Mike Ross and state treasurer Martha Shoffner.

I realize this is not an election year, but the number of politicians working the crowd seemed to be down this year even though the overall crowd count was up. Where were Sen. Linclon, Sen. Pryor and Congressman Ross? Maybe I just missed them among the large crowd. Maybe they had conflicts. Maybe they didn’t want folks hitting them up about health care reform.

One of my favorite Grady Fish Fry memories came in 1998 when I was managing the campaign of Gov. Mike Huckabee. It was at least 100 degrees that day, and I ordered that hundreds of funeral home-style fans bearing the campaign logo be taken down to Grady and distributed in advance of the governor’s arrival. Huckabee was one of those rare Arkansas Republicans who could count on solid support in south Arkansas and east Arkansas. He played with the prison band that day as hundreds of people fanned themselves, seemingly in unison. All through the grove, you could see the Huckabee campaign logo. It was a beautiful sight.

I along with my two regular Grady dining companions, Bubba Lloyd and Greg Yielding, had a great visit this year with Judge John Fogleman of Marion. Judge Fogleman is running for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. It was his first Grady Fish Fry. I can assure you that it won’t be his last.

For years, even though we were full, our trip back was marked by a stop at Mrs. Jones’ restaurant in Pine Bluff for a piece of pie. Mrs. Jones’ place is gone, replaced by a produce shed. We wouldn’t have had room for pie anyway. We almost closed the event down last night. It was nearing 8 p.m. as we pulled out of the Hardin pecan grove and headed north. I’m already looking forward to next year’s fish fry.

I once worried that Grady would run out of Lions. Like many southeast Arkansas farming communities, Grady gets smaller each year. The program has ads in memory of former Lions Club members — Harold Venable, Earl Sparks, David McLemore and others. But with women now in the club, the organization still seems strong. The Grady Lions Club even sponsors a chili supper on a Saturday night in February each year. That’s not an event I’ve attended, but I want to.

How are the proceeds from program advertisements and ticket sales used? The Grady Lions Club members collect eyglasses for recycling, provide glasses for the needy and distribute fruit baskets to the elderly at Thanksgiving. The club also awarded three college scholarships this year.

Slovak and Grady — one in winter and one in summer — top my list of must-attend Arkansas events. Which events, festivals, etc. in Arkansas do you try never to miss?

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