Frying up fun: Food tent is tough yet rewarding
Cue groans from half a dozen kitchen workers.
“I need a country breakfast, scrambled, a breakfast sandwich and a stand-alone sausage,” the voice continued.
“Ugh,” I thought from my station at the griddle. “How many sausages can Rock County eat?”
A lot, apparently.
St. John Vianney Church volunteers served up more than 700 sausage patties last year as part of their food tent at the Rock County 4-H Fair.
The church has been flipping sausages, frying hash browns and cooking eggs for more than 10 years at the fair. It served breakfast, lunch and dinner to more than 4,000 customers last year, and it expects even more this year now that it’s the only group serving a full breakfast at the fair.
The tent raises money for the church, but that’s not the most important thing, said Sheryl Oberle, who orders the food.
“It’s mainly the fellowship we raise working together,” she said.
I felt honored the group allowed me to help in the tent for a morning, but Sheryl quickly burst my bubble.
“We’ll let anyone volunteer,” she said. “You walk by and look bored, we’ll probably ask you to help.”
Small wonder, with 350 shifts available during fair week.
The group started work Wednesday just before 6 a.m. The sun was peeking over the horizon, and roosters were crowing good morning to the fairgrounds.
The volunteers put me on sausage duty, which seemed easy enough. I was supposed to keep fresh patties on the griddle and load them into a warmer when they were done.
“How fast do they cook?” I asked Mary Arndt, one of the main organizers.
“Slowly,” she replied.
She wasn’t kidding. At first, I was a little bored, flipping the patties and waiting for them to brown. A few 4-H’ers and their parents trickled in around 6:30 a.m., no doubt attracted by the smell of sausage and pancakes.
But then started what volunteers call “The Rush.” Within an hour, waves of hungry people lined up—and they all wanted sausage. I could barely keep up with the orders even after another volunteer loaded a second griddle.
I learned at the end of my shift the group served seven cases of sausage, the most ever in one morning.
Still, I was glad I wasn’t at Mary’s station. She quietly scrambled and fried eggs to each customer’s liking, keeping track of the orders in her head.
“This woman here is the egg master,” said volunteer Dona Bolton. “She’s the egg champion. She’s egg-cellent.”
It was Dona’s booming voice that called out the orders through the breakfast shift. When things got too quiet, she’d belt out a chorus of “Proud Mary.”
Indeed, Dona looked more like a rock star than a food worker in her faded denim jacket, sparkly earrings and pinstripe newsboy hat. Every once in a while, she broke out in a dance for the workers and customers.
We never really hit a lull, but when The Rush quieted a bit, I went to the front to get a different view. As volunteers completed customers’ orders, I brought the trays to the counter.
Each time I called out an order, customers eagerly looked at their tickets as if I’d announced the winning lottery numbers. I overheard them oohing and aahing over the plates and talking excitedly about what they ordered last year.
As the shift drew to a close, I was hungry and tired. I went home with sore feet, a grease-splattered shirt and a desperate need for a shower.
But I also left with a gigantic cinnamon roll, sugar hand scrub Dona made for the volunteers and a happy memory of new friends.
Still, next time I visit the food tent, I’ll be on the other side of the counter.