This article appeared in the Toronto Star on August 13, 2008. It is one of my favourite food finds.
SEBRINGVILLE, Ont. – It pays to check flyers pinned to the wall of Keep-U-Neet, the trusty dry cleaners I frequent in my home-town of Stratford.
That’s how I found out about the recent 10th annual fish fry at Emmanuel United Church in nearby Sebringville, endearingly described on its highway sign as “The Hamlet with Heart.”
This event follows hot on the heels of two church strawberry socials I’ve savoured this summer: outings in keeping with my delicious new policy: “Eat locally, seasonally, communally and well.”
When I arrive at the church on Sebringville’s main drag just before 4 p.m. – dinner is from 4:30 to 7 p.m. – Tom Howell’s Chevy Astro Van, bearing the licence plate T FISH, is parked out back.
Its inimitable owner – a “good ol’ boy” in the best sense of that phrase – is placing bricks under a hind wheel. “I need to do some jacking and shimming,” he says, explaining that the van must be level for what is about to occur.
The latter is some pretty novel, big-batch fish-frying with his van as kitchen using equipment he’s custom-built. He’s here to cook 350 pieces of fish for the crowd about to gather at long tables in the pristine hall below the church. This is a fundraiser. Dinner costs a mere $12 a pop.
When I witness Howell in action, I can hardly believe my eyes.
Seated on a milk crate atop astro-turf that lines the floor, he faces the propane-fuelled shallow fryer he’s constructed just inside the van’s back doors. “This is a hamburger grill I’ve modified into a giant frying pan,” he explains. “I can cook like this in the middle of a field.”
As he pours about ¾ of an inch of canola oil from large containers into the two adjoining fryers, this garrulous fellow adjusts his backwards baseball cap and the non-stop patter begins.
Fish – and, in particular frying it for rural community dinners – is in his blood.
His family has owned Howell’s Fish in Wiarton, where he lives, since 1952. There was a short blip in 1962 when his father, a commercial fisherman, lost the business in a poker game. His capable mother Mary, whom he mentions often, resurrected and basically ran it until she died in 1996.
From April 1 to the end of October, he does three to five fish-fries a week, mostly in small towns around the province. This means he works “seven days a week for seven months of the year.” In winter, it’s off to Florida for some well-deserved R & R.
As he talks, he tosses 22 pieces of lake trout – there was no whitefish, his other fish-fry mainstay, available today – in a big plastic bag filled with his sweet and simple coating: 12 cups of flour, 1 cup of salt, a rounded tablespoon of pepper and ¼ teaspoon garlic powder.
All fish bones have been removed by Howell’s staff using strawberry hullers.
Using both fryers, he effortlessly cooks 44 pieces of fish – each cut into a thick 8-ounce size – at a time. The trout was caught in nets the day before from Lake Huron in Georgian Bay and delivered to Howell by native fishermen from the Cape Croker Indian Reserve. He’s been buying fish from them for many moons.
“I grew up with most of them,” he notes. “They’re good people and more honest than most white people you come across. You don’t have to worry about being screwed.”
He bemoans the fact that other fish they used to catch – perch and pickerel, in particular – are becoming scarce, leaving whitefish and lake trout as the two plentiful species.
He blames Sudbury smoke-stacks, constructed in 1968, for changing the pH balance on the lake’s eastern shoreline and killing off small animal life that was fodder for fish.
Howell is now in full frying mode. His tools are simple: a small metal spatula and a fork.
“First, I put the fish in the oil skin side up so the moisture goes into the skin, not into the air, and cook it for 8 to 10 minutes,” he notes. “I know the oil is hot enough when it bubbles up around the fish. That seals and cooks it.”
Using the spatula, he turns each piece and cooks it for another 4 to 5 minutes. There’s no watch or timer, just his own test for doneness.
“If the fork goes through the fish nice and easy, it’s cooked,” he continues. “If the fork sticks, it’s raw in the middle.”
The oil is drained off after each fish fry via a homemade hose-and-funnel device, then dispatched for recycling.
Occasionally, spattering fat burns his arms. “I just keep going,” he says cheerily. A fire extinguisher is close at hand.
Howell recalls cooking eggs for his mother at age five. He did his first fish-fry for the public in 1983. “I’ve probably done 10,000 since then,” he muses.
He loves his work, attributes his success to “rhythm – you have to keep moving,” using a good product – “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” – and return business – “Good news takes months to get around; bad news takes seconds.”
By now, I’m hungry and sit down inside to eat. I can unequivocally say that Howell’s fried lake trout is the best piece of fish I’ve eaten. A baked potato, coleslaw and tartare sauce prepared by the church ladies are perfect sidekicks.
To shred cabbage, cut in quarters, remove core and shred finely using knife or mandolin. Best made a day ahead.
1 small cabbage, finely shredded (6 to 8 cups)
2 tsp kosher salt
1 medium carrot, shredded
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1½ tbsp Asian rice vinegar
1 tsp maple syrup
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
2 tbsp minced shallot or sweet (Vidalia) onion
Toss cabbage and salt in large bowl. Transfer to colander set over shallow bowl. Let sit at least 1 but no more than 4 hours; pat dry with paper towels.
Place carrot in large bowl; add cabbage.
In small bowl, whisk together dressing ingredients. Add to coleslaw; toss to combine. Chill.
Makes about 6 to 8 servings.