Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Fillin' up on church-fried chicken

We taste homemade goodness at three festivals in three states on one day

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Snappy green beans; soft, homemade egg noodles; puckery lemon pie, and honest-to-goodness, made-from-scratch fried chicken.

        That's the jaw-dropping menu at some Tristate church dining halls this summer. Years ago, many Catholic churches began sponsoring the dinners and festivals to raise money for causes. Perhaps because chicken was cheap and the churches owned idle Lenten fish fryers, the meals were built around fried chicken.

        The season begins in June and continues through October, but the dinners peak in August when the corn stands proud, the nights begin to cool, and kids are still home from school.

        If you keep your eyes open and nose in the air, you can find a chicken dinner somewhere every weekend this time of year. Many people, including plenty non-Catholics, go to see old friends and parishioners — and to eat their fill.
       Not everyone gets to sample three of the best chicken dinners in three states on one sunny August Sunday.

        We did.

St. Aloysius, Shandon

        The dark-haired woman looks up, squinting pleasantly but a little impatiently — like she really doesn't have time to answer such silly questions.

        “Yes, I think people would probably eat corn-on-the-cob,” says Anne Wanamaker, who co-chairs the St. Aloysius Church Festival in Shandon with her husband, Bob. “But this is the way we've always done it.”

        At this church — a few miles southwest of Hamilton in Butler County — the way they've always done it is to buy the freshest corn they can find. But instead of just cooking it on the cob, volunteers cut the gold and yellow kernels off the cob, then boil and butter it.

        So there Ms. Wanamaker sits on the Saturday morning before the St. Aloysius festival, surrounded by 15 other adult and children volunteers, carefully stripping silk from freshly shucked corn. By day's end, they will have cleaned 300 dozen ears, but they won't brag about it.

        Probably because they shucked just as much corn the year before, and at many festivals before that.

        For more than 80 years, a serious helping of tradition has been served at St. Aloysius alongside the fried chicken, green beans, tender noodles and that delicious buttered corn.

        At the other end of the big tent pitched in the grass, 30 women sit in a circle, sheet pans balanced in their laps, gouging out the tiny eyes of potatoes with paring knives, then cutting the potatoes into chunks. Early Sunday morning, they'll boil and whip the spuds into velvety mashed potatoes, building a foundation for chicken gravy, made from homemade broth, fried drippings and flour.

        The volunteers work with little question or direction, as if they have studied a manual for preparing dinner from scratch for 3,000-plus guests. Most probably know what to do because they have helped at the St. Aloysius dinner since they were old enough to peel and shuck.

[photo] Marcella Ferneding makes sweet and sour coleslaw for the St. Aloysius Church Festival
(Thomas E. Witte photo)
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        Marcella Ferneding started helping when she was 9 years old — 60 or more years ago. Less than an hour before dinner service begins on Sunday morning, she steps up on a plastic tub to get high enough to mix the sweet-and-sour coleslaw.

        “I used to help pluck the chickens,” the little woman says with a grin. “I don't miss that.”

        Working at the coleslaw table are five members of her family — a daughter-in-law, two grandsons and two granddaughters.

        Next door, in a low-slung concrete building, Dan Lysaght and his crew are in charge of the fried chicken. They started frying the 4,900 pounds of poultry at 8 a.m. As always, they fry it in nothing but melted lard.

        “I definitely think the lard makes the chicken taste better,” says Mr. Lysaght. “If we stopped using it, I'd be afraid the dinner crowds would drop off.”

        The fryers dump the chicken into the hot fat and then step outside, away from the battery of fiercely hot gas ranges, for a few minutes of relief. When it's done, they pour the chicken into pans and keep it warm in ovens.

        Inside the church, in the “pie room” — known as the boiler room the rest of the year — Ida Rosenberger and Karolina Engler have lined shelves around pipes with an assortment of sliced sweets made by parishioners — German chocolate cake, cheese pie, fresh peach and blackberry cobblers and chocolate chip cheesecake. The women are giddy about a new apple pie made with zucchini, but predict the crowd favorite will be the lemon meringue.

        “It's our job to hold back on the more scarce pies,” says Mrs. Rosenberger, who has been working at the chicken dinners almost as long as Mrs. Ferneding.

        There's fried chicken in the oven, buttered noodles, mashed potatoes and vegetables steaming — and a hungry crowd standing outside the door. Promptly at 11 a.m., the people come in to sit at long tables. Children and teen-agers bring bowls of food to pass family-style, and the people eat. And eat.

        “This dinner is well-organized,” observes Jinny Kohler of Bridgetown, a veteran of many church chicken dinners in the region. “It's air-conditioned. And there are no flies.”

        “And this corn,” raves her friend, Ginny Seifert of Groesbeck. “What did they do to this corn?”

St. Joseph, Crescent Springs

        There's probably no one more steeped in the church-fried chicken tradition than Tom Noll of Villa Hills. For one weekend in August, he almost drips with fried chicken grease.

        He has been manning the fryers at the St. Joseph festival in Crescent Springs for seven years, but his family has been frying the chicken for nearly half a century. Many at St. Joseph call it “Noll's famous fried chicken,” so you might think he would feel pressure to produce the best.

        “It's really not a big deal,” says Mr. Noll, who works as an accountant when he's not dunking chicken into hot oil.

        Sunday afternoon, he works methodically — lowering racks of quartered chickens into five deep fryers, stirring the oil with tongs occasionally, then lifting the chicken out to drain a few minutes later. It's a “chicken dance” he learned by watching the steps of his father, Robert, more than 40 years ago.

[photo] Tom Noll prepares his famous chicken
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        The elder Mr. Noll, also an accountant, began frying chicken at St. Joseph in 1955. He brought in Tom, then age 20, to help three years later.

        “When Dad was here, you couldn't get close to the fryers,” Tom says.

        His father continued to fry the chicken until he suffered a stroke in 1991, then returned to direct the frying operation from a wheelchair. He died in 1999, but left detailed notes for the Noll chicken fryers that would follow.

        Years ago, Robert Noll discovered that the key to cooking chicken for a church crowd was keeping up with demand, which could spike unexpectedly with the arrival of a van or bus of hungry guests. So he devised a clever system whereby he “prefried” the chicken, and stashed it in metal cans lined with foil. When the kitchen called for more chicken, he could refry a batch in a few minutes.

        “This chicken is basically done when we cook it the first time,” Tom says. “We fry it again to give it better color.”

        Before its second hot dip, the chicken is pale and blond-colored. But when it bobs out of the oil, the chicken has turned a picture-perfect dark gold.

        That's all there is to it, Tom says. There is no secret to the breading. Just flour, salt “and enough pepper to make you sneeze.”

        But his fans refuse to believe there's nothing magical about that fried bird.

        “I never order chicken when I eat out,” says Sheila Maschinot, who has just finished eating dinner. “I only eat this chicken.”

        With its hissing whirly-twirl amusement rides and live jazz band, the St. Joseph festival is more “city-fied” than some. A Cincinnati chili chain and Chinese restaurant gamely attempt to sell their fast food from booths, but on this Sunday, they are no match for Noll's fried chicken.

        In a cool dining hall dedicated to Robert Noll, the people amble through a buffet line to pile their plates with beans, corn, potatoes and sticky pineapple-upside down cake. To please a few misguided souls who can't bring themselves to eat fabulous fried chicken one day a year, the church offers roast beef. But more than 90 percent of the guests who come through the door have one entree in mind, says Jane Terrell, who coordinates the chicken dinner.

        Outside, at his fryer post, Mr. Noll waves to friends waiting in line to eat.

        “I like doing this because it brings families together,” he says.

        The festival also brings together his family. Tom's wife, Carol, and her brother, Ken Krumpelman, stack the chicken on racks for the fryers. Tom's son, David, and 12-year-old grandson, Brian, haul the chicken to the kitchen.

        They will stay with him to the end, 9 p.m. or later, to help clean up. After he's done, Mr. Noll admits he can't eat fried chicken for at least a couple of weeks.

        When he gets home, he mostly craves a shower.

St. Paul's, New Alsace

        Just across the Ohio-Indiana line, where winding asphalt roads are patched like rustic quilts hanging in a country store, New Alsace, Ind., holds possibly the only church dinner where the chicken plays second fiddle to a side dish. Most parishioners at St. Paul's Church agree the flavorful bread dressing is the dinner's main attraction.

        The maker of the dressing is Tillie Hoffbauer, a short, seventy-something woman who wears athletic walking shoes. Long ago, she can't remember when, Mrs. Hoffbauer started helping her husband fry chicken at the church festival. Later, she moved on to apprentice with the dressing cooks.

        “The woman in charge of the dressing just turned it over to me,” she says.

[photo] Tillie Hoffbauer and her chicken dressing
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        No doubt, she has improved the recipe in the 40 years since.

        This year, like every year, Mrs. Hoffbauer began making the dressing more than a week ahead, when she set out 275 loaves of white bread to dry in the dining hall basement.

        Then early Saturday morning — the day before the dinner — she and a dozen others start cooking. More than 1,600 chickens sacrifice their necks for Mrs. Hoffbauer's dressing. She boils the necks in water with celery and carrots, then strains the golden stock. She fries onions in shortening until soft, while some workers meticulously pick meat from the cooked necks and others chop celery and wash parsley.

        Mrs. Hoffbauer won't make the dressing until Sunday. It tastes best when it's baked the day it's eaten. And besides, she probably couldn't trust parishioners not to nibble on it Saturday night.

        So Sunday at 5:30 a.m., she hurries in the darkness down the road to the church kitchen. Mrs. Hoffbauer first covers the crusty bread with water and then squeezes it dry. In big bowls, she mixes the soft bread, eggs, fried onions, chicken-neck meat, ground gizzards and livers with chopped vegetables and broth. She smears the bottom of shallow pans with shortening, rakes in the dressing and tops it with hunks of butter.

        The dressing bakes 30 minutes, then she slices it and flips it over to bake another half hour until crisp.

        Mrs. Hoffbauer's daughter, Marilyn Bower, knows how to make the dressing, and her 17-year-old granddaughter, Debra Bower, is learning.

        “I came to Mass at 9 this morning, and I could smell the dressing cooking,” says kitchen volunteer Janice Dieselberg, who has eaten it since she was a little girl. “And it made me pretty hungry.”

        The dressing is dark and rich with shredded chicken, redolent of onions and celery. It tastes like the dressing you might eat at Thanksgiving, but without the thyme and frivolous fruit. It deserves the rank of main course.

        Mrs. Hoffbauer doesn't stop mixing and baking the dressing until 1 p.m — in time to play a few games of bingo.

        By then, the line of people waiting to eat her dressing, and the rest of the feast curls around the church to the street.

        “I brought my mother here because she always brought me when I was little,” says Karen Ferrand, who drove 80 miles from her home in Greenwood, Ind., to stand at the back of the line.

        There is a shorter wait at the “lunch” tent, which offers crispy fried chicken livers in plastic cups and mock turtle soup, simmered sharp and spicy with lemon and gingersnaps — but not Mrs. Hoffbauer's dressing. It's only served in the dark church gymnasium, warm and muggy from the herd of hungry bodies. There, men direct the crowds in the door and down the aisles single file, as if landing planes on a runway.

        Like many churches, St. Paul's serves the food family-style. Two volunteers stand at each table, watching for empty plates or plastic cups. Kids and grown-ups lug trays of food to be passed. The $8 ticket entitles diners to eat as much as they can, but they are asked to put down their forks within an hour.

        “Some people do sit a while,” says Albert Back, who is charge of seating and has worked the festival for 35 years. “But seldom do we have to ask someone to move on.”

        By 4 p.m., they have served more than 2,000 dinners. And to the dismay of a few, the kitchen runs out of the bread dressing — even before chicken.

        “I don't get tired of making it,” Mrs. Hoffbauer says later, a pinch of pride in her voice. “It's only once a year.”



St. Aloysius' Coleslaw Dressing

       1 1/4 cups sugar
        3/4 teaspoon each: salt, black pepper
       1 cup cider vinegar

        Stir sugar, salt and pepper with vinegar until sugar dissolves. Toss dressing lightly, to taste, with shredded cabbage, red and/or green bell peppers.Chill until serving.

— Marcella Ferneding, Shandon

St. Joseph's Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

        1 stick butter
       1 cup brown sugar, packed
       1 15 1/4 ounce can pineapple slices, drained (reserve juice)
       8 maraschino cherries, drained
       1 package Duncan Hines French Vanilla Cake Mix
        1/3 cup vegetable oil
       3 eggs

        Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter slowly in a 9-inch oven-proof skillet. Add brown sugar and stir until dissolved; remove pan from heat. Arrange pineapple slices in skillet and place cherries in center of each (stem side down).

        Add enough water to reserved pineapple juice to equal 1 1/4 cups. Prepare cake mix as directed, using pineapple juice/water in place of water. Pour batter into skillet and bake 45 minutes, until cake tests done.

        Turn skillet upside down onto serving plate — but don't remove skillet. Let skillet rest about 10 minutes, until cake settles onto plate. Remove skillet and serve.

— Ginny Jones, Crescent Springs

St. Paul's Picnic Dressing

        3 loaves white bread
       2 tablespoons butter
       1 cup diced onion
       3 eggs, lightly beaten 1 cup ground, uncooked chicken livers
        1/2 cup shredded chicken meat, from boiled necks or skinless thighs
        1/2 cup diced celery
       1 1/4 cups chicken broth*
        1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
       Salt and pepper, to taste

        Set bread out on sheet pans at room temperature or in warm oven to dry thoroughly. When ready to make dressing, dip bread into water and then squeeze dry. Lightly separate bread and place in large bowl.

        Saute diced onion in 2 tablespoons butter until soft, 5 to 8 minutes. Add sauted onion to bowl with bread. Add eggs, ground chicken livers, shredded chicken, diced celery, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, to taste. Mix well and pour dressing into two greased 9-by-13-inch baking pans. Spread dressing out evenly and dot with butter.

        Bake dressing in preheated 350-degree oven 30 minutes. Remove pans and flip dressing over. Return dressing to oven and bake another 20 to 30 minutes, until crisp on both sides.

        *Note: You can use canned broth, but the volunteer cooks at St. Pauls make broth by boiling chicken necks in water with chopped onions and celery for 45 minutes to an hour.

— Tillie Hoffbauer, New Alsace, Ind.


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