Fire Hall Feasts : At stations across Maryland, 'feeds' raise funds and provide chances for neighbors to get together and chow down. No one leaves hungry, except perhaps for those on their way to a blaze.

November 05, 1997|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At 4 o'clock on the dot on a recent Saturday evening, people were already lined up at the Lineboro Volunteer Fire Department in northern Carroll County, waiting to purchase crab cake, shrimp, hot beef and hot turkey platters for supper.

In the kitchen, someone was complaining because somebody else hadn't shown up to help, a novice was cautiously manning the deep fryer and the rest of the volunteer staff was trying to memorize prices and portion sizes before it really got busy.

Lynne Warner was calm amid the chaos, soothing the complainer from across the room while she stood with one eye on the deep fryer and the other on the grill -- at the same time mentally calculating just how many fried shrimp should come with the shrimp platter and how many would land in the smaller and less expensive shrimp boat.

Warner, president of Lineboro's Ladies' Auxiliary, took over the kitchen two years ago. With the help and input of fire company members, she oversees three dinners a year along with the snack bar and casual suppers that accompany the department's annual hayride, always scheduled during the two weeks before Halloween.

Warner is not alone. Fire companies across the state sponsor dinners that are open to the public. In outlying counties like St. Mary's in Southern Maryland and even closer to the metropolitan area in Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties, fire hall suppers are important fund-raisers that the volunteer services depend upon to raise money needed to buy equipment ranging from firefighters' boots and emergency pagers to ambulances and tanker trucks.

Commonly referred to as "feeds" by those who sponsor them, the public dinners are also important social gatherings where members of the community sit elbow to elbow, chowing down on everything from spaghetti, sandwiches or fried chicken to oysters and ham. Typically, the $10 to $15 adult dinner ticket is for all you can eat. Diners usually leave the table satisfied that they received a good meal at a low cost that benefits a worthy cause.

Precise planning

For the fire companies, feeding several hundred people takes some precise planning with time and patience built into the schedule to head off mistakes. Barbara Wible, president of the Ladies' Auxiliary at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Company in St. Mary's County, said volunteers there start preparing for the annual spring stuffed ham and oyster dinner more than a week ahead of time, buying the potatoes, yams and other produce that will be served and bringing in the "corned hams" needed to make the fire hall's version of St. Mary's County stuffed ham.

The hams -- a Southern Maryland specialty stuffed with a spicy mix of greens and pepper -- are wrapped in cheesecloth and boiled for several hours. The fire company prefers to cook the hams on the Wednesday or Thursday before a supper, so the meat only has to be sliced and served by the time the banquet rolls around, Wible said.

The spring supper, actually held in early March, is served family style and usually attracts close to 1,500 people, said fire company Lt. Mark Pettit. Firefighters and their spouses can hardly keep up with the demand for more ham, oysters and the accompanying bowls of green beans, parsley potatoes, candied yams and cole slaw. The Hollywood kitchen also offers chicken salad with the meal along with bottomless cups of coffee and ice tea. For dessert, dinner-goers can buy a slice of homemade cake or pie off the bake table for a nominal fee.

That dinner and an annual turkey and oyster supper, held last month, are is second only to the company's weeklong summer carnival in the amount of money generated. "At $15 a person and 1,500 people eating, that's a nice chunk of change," Pettit said.

"Without it, we'd have less equipment, there'd be less funding for our firehouse and it would put quite a deficit in our capability to purchase modern equipment," he said.

Volunteer help

John Barnhart, chairman of the supper committee at Long Green Volunteer Fire Company in Baltimore County, said the department, incorporated in 1930, has held eight suppers a year since "long before I was ever here." The menu usually consists of fried oysters and ham, though two crab cake and ham dinners round out the schedule. Barnhart, 73, depends on a few of his peers to handle organizational details. Friends of the fire company and members volunteer long hours to make sure everything goes as planned.

With a hall capacity of just 200 people, the Long Green volunteers seat diners in shifts, and many guests wait an hour or two to get in, Barnhart said. The menu also includes all-you-can-eat dressing, potato salad, cole slaw, pickled beets, string beans, carrots and rolls and butter. The only thing the TTC company restricts are the hand-patted oysters. Diners receive six with their $10 adult ticket, Barnhart said. Kids eat for $6.

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