Blues Pig jammed with special guest Town Manager Bruce St. Denis. A crowd of 225 filled their plates with fried fish, coleslaw, hushpuppies and more before dancing while the sun set over Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub. The Oct. 15 fish fry was the first fish fry dubbed the “Pioneer Day Fish Fry” and the sixth consecutive fish fry held by the Longboat Key Historical Society. The Historical Society renamed the event, previously known as the “Old Time Fish Fry,” in hopes of attracting pioneers who would remember how the tradition started.
Local news archives from the 1940s show advertisements for private fish fries, including one for Rotary Club members at the estate of Frank Wickersham and another for the Fisherman’s Union one mile north of New Pass. But the public tradition of fish fries likely began after 1953, when the Longboat Key Volunteer Fire Department was formed. The young department began with 15 members but no fire truck or building. So, during the mid-1950s, local residents began holding fish fries near the area where the former Longbeach Chevron building is located.
Longbeach Village resident Shirley Beachum said that she was usually working when the early fish fries took place, although her mother and stepfather, Edith and James G. Johnson, participated.
“The men would catch the fish and fry the mullet, and the women would stay and stir the hushpuppies,” she said. “The only thing I don’t remember them having is the cheese grits.”
According to Longboat Key Historical Society President Tom Mayers, mullet was probably the staple of early fish fries because they often took place during the fall, which is the height of mullet season.
“Right now, they’re at their best and fattest of the year,” he said.
Fish fries helped the fire department buy its first truck, “Red Maria,” and to build its first firehouse. Although private groups on the island continued to hold fish fries after the 1950s, it wasn’t until 2005 that the Historical Society resurrected the event for the public. Now, according to Mayers, the event is both a fundraiser and a “fun-raiser.”
Although few pioneers who attended early fish fries remain, it’s a reminder of a time when neighbors had to rely on each other, Mayers said.
“The main point is to get across to people how simple things were,” Mayers said.
And how did the food compare to fish fries of long ago? Beachum thinks the food was probably pretty similar. She remembers her mother and stepfather raving about the 1950s fish fries.
“This year, they had some of the best food they’ve ever had,” she said.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]