By LAURA HAMPTON
When the St. Ambrose Catholic Parish held its first spring fair, the popular menu item was gopher stew. The year was 1881, and at that time, the gopher tortoise was plentiful in rural Elkton.
“Out here, that was a staple for us,” said Maryanne Solano Griffin, a lifelong parishioner. “These woods was full of gophers.”
Reminiscing about fairs past is just part of the lively chatter booming through the church hall as 17 volunteers perform the “fry down” in preparation for the 2016 spring fair.
In a fry down, bell pepper, onion, celery and tomatoes are cooked together until the mixture is thick and slightly brown.
It takes all day, and it is just step one in making Mary Ellen Masters’ Minorcan classic chicken pilau (pronounced per-lo) for hundreds of people.
Masters supervises the process that requires more than 15 workers pulling eight-hour shifts on four days in February and March — in total, 480 hours. She’s more than qualified.
Another lifelong member of the parish, Masters has been in the kitchen preparing for the spring fair for more than 60 years — like her mother and grandmother before.
At that time, all the ladies in the church made their pilau and chicken at home and brought it to the church.
“There’d be 40 pots of pilau in here,” Masters said. “And every one was different.”
The health department put a stop to bringing outside food into the church, and sometime in the 1980s, gophers made it to the endangered species list in the state of Florida.
That’s when Masters got the bright idea of replacing the gopher stew with Minorcan clam chowder.
“It’s very similar in taste,” Masters said.
The move turned out to be a popular one. The first year, Masters made one 15-gallon pot of chowder. Today, she makes 150 gallons of the spicy seafood stew in specially built pots on the church grounds. She sells out in about two hours.
More than a parish tradition, the St. Ambrose Spring Fair is an Old Florida tradition. Many of the church’s founding members descended from the Minorcan clan that lived in St. Augustine in the 1700s. Some descended from Los Floridanos, the children of Spanish settlers born in Florida.
Though Masters wonders how long the tradition will be kept alive, for now, she has no trouble getting volunteers to put in the long hours to prepare for the fair.
“Mary Ellen says ‘We’re gonna have fry down,’ and she knows we’ll all show up,” said church member Maggie Hall. “You get a dirty look if you don’t come.”
4 to 5 pounds chicken parts
1 can No. 303 (16 to 17 ounces) tomatoes
2 medium onions
1/2 small bell pepper
4 cups rice
6 cups water
salt to taste
1 or 2 datil peppers
Cook chicken in one cup of water until partially tender. Cook next three ingredients in chicken fat until thick and lightly brown. Add this mixture to boiling meat and continue cooking until tender. Add thoroughly washed rice, salt and pepper to meat. Add remaining water. Bring to hard boil, stirring often. On low heat, continue to boil slowly, until most of the water is absorbed into the rice. Steam until rice is soft and fluffy.
— Recipe adapted from the St. Ambrose Parish’s church history book.
At the fair
Guests can get pilau or ham dinners with sides such as cole slaw, potato salad and steamed cabbage for $10. Minorcan clam chowder will sell for $5 a serving or $10 a quart. In addition to the Minorcan heritage classics, the church will sell hamburgers, hot dogs and desserts.
But the fair is not all about food.
Red River Band will provide music for the afternoon and tours of the church and gardens will be available.
The church will also hold a silent auction, 50/50 drawings and a yard sale.
For the young ones, there will be face painting, hay rides and children’s games.
Oh, and don’t forget to save room for ice cream.
The St. Ambrose Spring Fair will start at noon March 13 at the St. Ambrose Catholic Church, 6070 Church Road, Elkton. Follow the signs on State Road 207 and County Road 13.
If you go
What: St. Ambrose Spring Fair
When: noon March 13
Where: St. Ambrose Catholic Church, 6070 Church Road, Elkton