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'Chicken Fry' serves up life skills, funds for Ste. Genevieve County 4-H members

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There’s nothing more tempting than the aroma of county fair food drifting over the midway, bringing visions of corn dogs and funnel cakes freshly pulled from a deep fryer; hamburgers, and barbequed brats.

A fried chicken plate with all the trimmings is a stretch when it comes to traditional, portable fair eats, but it means leadership and marketing skills for Ste. Genevieve County 4-H Club member.

For decades, the 4-H Chicken Fry has been the kickoff for activities at the Ste. Genevieve County Fair. It’s also been the major fund raiser for 4-H activities, including award banquets and summer camps.

Volunteers and cooks from VFW Post 2210 prepare the food, but Gretchen Jacob said 4-H members and their families do everything else during the event.

They sell tickets, serve, package food for carry-out orders, prepare drinks, make their own “signature” desserts, and clear tables. At times, they act as hosts, guiding diners to their seats at the VFW Hall.

“The Chicken Fry is completely the 4-H members’ project. They learn time management, people, and business skills,” Jacob, 4-H youth development program assistant for Ste. Genevieve County and the East Central region, said. “And it is a family affair; some of them take their summer vacations after the chicken fry is done.

“4-H members in our club range from age 5 to 18. In many cases, the younger siblings follow their older brother or sister’s footsteps and continue their family’s participation in the event.”

Chicken fry proceeds go directly to the Ste. Genevieve 4-H Club’s account. Jacob said the money pays for ribbons and premiums for the 4-H Fair, a yearly recognition dinner, end-of-the-year awards, scholarships, as well as travel to contests and other events.

“We have a couple of members who want to take 4-H international exchange trips,” Jacob said. “One is talking about making an exchange trip to Japan. That’s why the chicken fry is so important; it helps pay for those expenses.”

The community plays a major role in the event’s success.

“There’s been a wonderful group of workers that have supported the event for about 20 years.” Jacob said. “They cook chicken in the fry shack on the Knights of Columbus groups. And they make it an afternoon event, since they have to prepare enough food to feed 500 people (roughly 12 cases of chicken pieces), and bring it to the VFW Hall.”

VFW cooks prepare the side dishes and volunteers from the Knights of Columbus prepare liver dumplings, a favorite dish in Ste. Genevieve County.

Jacob said response to the event has been tremendous. “We hold the chicken fry from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and there have been times when we were sold out before the event ended,” she said.

While some people enjoy the chance to eat and visit with friends in the VFW Hall, Jacob said the number of carry-out orders has grown steadily.

“We have done more carry-outs in the last couple of years than dine-in tickets,” she said. “We get the carry-out orders from larger groups, such as local companies. “We deliver to (local) hospital employees, the nursing homes and Mississippi Lime Company workers.

“They know it’s a great value. Where can you get two pieces of chicken, two sides, coleslaw, liver dumplings, a drink, and homemade dessert for $8? Plus, it’s always a fight to the finish to pick a dessert. For a lot of the diners, the dessert table is the first place they check out before they even buy a ticket.”