Fair Remembrance: Someone’s in the Kitchen

Just when the guy in charge of the kitchen has retired, a pandemic comes along and obliterates the Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair and all that annual fine fair food. So, on the year without a fair, we look back again to our 2015 story of fair food, who did it all back in the day, what was done, how and who’s still cooking. Can you wait another year? The absence of fair food wafting through the air likely has everyone drooling for the next fair already … No one’s in the kitchen this year but the ghosts. They’re always there …

By Elaine Van Develde

Someone’s in the kitchen at Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair grounds.

And while they may have, at one point another been with someone named Dinah, as the old ditty goes, it’s a definite they’ve been with someone named Mike, Dale, Sue (x2), Raquel, Ethel (x2), Mary, Anne, Amanda, Skippy, Hodgie, Mary Ellen, Joe, Evie, and, oh, yeah, Andy and a few others.

And they certainly haven’t been strummin’ on any ol’ banjo. They’ve been way too busy — cutting, peeling, filling, flouring, husking and just plain cooking.

Except there’s nothing plain about what’s cooking in the fair kitchen, who’s cooking it, when, where, why or how.

There’s a lot of fancy in this special fair brand of plain. It’s not your ordinary carnival cooking — well, it is, but it’s not. Call the mere scent of it in the Fair Haven air a hometown comfort trigger.

Yeah, a trigger. One waft of that fair fried seafood aroma and you know everything’s gonna be alright. You’re home.

It’s around this time of the year that the comfort memory of knowing someone’s always cooking in the kitchen comes back.

At night, the lights are on. During the day, you can see people scurrying around. Those are the sights that remind us of the goodness in a community in which some of us were lucky enough to be raised.

The scents — they conjure up the memories like Sirens.

And those memories simmer like that sauce the kitchen folks prepped every day as they steeped their lives into that secret recipe of close knit community.

So, the Retro Pic(s) of the Day take us back to the folks who were there when we were young and percolating with enough energy to help day and night. OK, we were dragged there day and night. But we loved it.

A day of kitchen work at the fair, in the eyes of a kid helper, namely Evie Connor Kelly, and yours truly, went something like this …

There was a place and job for everyone. And it all came together, as it still does, in a family style way.

Kids, in the old days, Connor Kelly reminds us, “aged out” of working on the candy apple brigade by the time they were the ripe old age of 8.

Then, if you had a literal relative interest in kitchen and dining room work, you “retired” to work under the core direction of Sue Bennett.

Sue was all about the business of running an efficient dining room and caring for her community. She was a larger-than-life presence in the First Aid Squad as well. She was always hustling, running around in the dining room, direct with direction, always a pencil tucked behind her ear and sweat on her brow. No nonsense.

She was intimidating, for sure — especially to a little kid. She was also one of the most sincere, caring people you’d ever meet. Her smile was as earnest as her work ethic.

Sue had the kids prepping in an festidious flurry — filling salt and pepper shakers, stuffing napkin holders, filling bowls with packets of condiments and all that table jazz.

“Once we were done, we then went behind the firehouse to shuck corn,” Connor Kelly recalled. “There was an entire upstairs kitchen staff that cut up the eggplant, made the shrimp salad, marinara sauce, roast beef, meatballs and sausage.”

My mom, Sally, dragged me up there occasionally, where we hung out with Ethel Russek, Mary Pryor, Skippy McDaniel, Anne Dupree, Dot Connor, Barbara and Bill Lang and a slew of others (sorry if I’ve left anyone out).

And back downstairs, a daytime assembly line of girl fish and eggplant breadcrumb dredgers, under the supervision of Mary Ellen Connor, was at work.

“The boys’ side cooked the chicken (pre-pre-fab nugget days), boiled shrimp for shrimp salad, thawing the (very secret recipe) clam chowder broth from when it was cooked and frozen a few weeks before,” Connor Kelly said. “Dad (Joe Connor) was the supervisor of that crew.”

At night, the men manned stations for different menu items. They still do — fair, the next generation. The women at the door to the kitchen and through that classic cage-like take out window, get the orders, call them out to the guys and, well, it all comes together in a nice little fair fried package of goodness.

One of the cool little things about the Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair’s fried platters that sets them apart — aside from the fresh, quality seafood brought in daily from as far as Maryland — is the special little feature that you can get fries or eggplant on the side.

That’s the side. Then there’s a little background — call it backstage — secret.

His name is Andy Binaco! Always ready to accommodate, Andy Binaco is the guy who makes sure everyone has what they need.

If you’re near the kitchen and you hear, “ANDY!” you know a kitchen or dining room need, large or small, is being met by this guy, who has been the go-to guy there forever.

“He has been such a figure in the kitchen for so long, if he is unable to be there for any reason, whoever is working in his place, immediately becomes ‘Andy’,” Connor Kelly said. “He is priceless.”

And speaking of go-to, know that when things are hectic and you order a soft shell crab sandwich or platter, something any fair goer craves all year long, it’s all in the first call for that crab coming out of the fryer. There have been small kitchen riots over that one. Those fried gourmet buggers are in demand. And there’s a reason for that.

They’re mighty tasty crustaceans. Lest we forget the steamers, scallops, flounder, shrimp, steamers and, of course, clams-on-the- half-shell and chowder … Oh, my!

It’s about that time. Time for cooking up some fair goodness. The goodness is all the same. So are the scents. So are the people. That’s what it’s all about. There’s a reason for that. The connections were forged a long time ago in that secret community family recipe.

A once child-trained Evie Connor is now more than 50 years into this kitchen/dining room tradition.

The guy running the culinary show until last year was yet another Connor — Mike Connor. You’d also see him cooking with the guys. Beside him, corralling the ladies in the kitchen, is his cousin, Susan Connor McDaniel, Mary Ellen’s daughter and Evie’s sister. Yes, it’s a family affair.

And the ladies running the sit-down dining room are none other than Connor’s wife, Dale, forever Fair Havenite and the borough’s former tax collector, and Raquel Falotico, another forever Fair Havenite, First Aid Squad member extraordinaire and daughter of yet another lifetime fire company member who many remember as a hostess in the dining room — Mary Falotico.

Mary was also the school nurse at Knollwood for many years. What ails you? Lack of a Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair food and company fix during the school year, for sure.

Yes, it’s time. Someone’s cooking in the kitchen. Someone’s prepping the food. Someone’s serving up all this comfort. They are all the people behind the fair kitchen and dining room.

And it’s nothing but all good, homemade memories. Take a whiff. Remember.

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management