Frederick Oyster Fry: A carefully orchestrated community event
by: Haley Hoover
It is 4:30 in the morning in a sleepy little fishing town on the coast of Texas. Thousands of delicious saltwater oysters are being shucked and harvested while Trevor Flores eagerly waits for his shipment. Within the hour the freezers on the back of his truck will be loaded down with these tasty treats as he makes a 9-hour turn-around back to Frederick, Oklahoma.
As soon as Trevor’s tires enter Tillman County, the oysters will be delivered to the elementary school cafeteria where they are hand-battered, fried and served by over a hundred community volunteers in Frederick, Oklahoma.
Though this is a unique event, it is by no means a new one. The town of Frederick has been facilitating its annual Oyster Fry Festival for nearly 30 years. However, the event dates back even further to the nearby town of Manitou, where it held a previous 30-year stint as a fundraiser for the local school board.
When the event began in Manitou, it started as a special dinner for the school board, but as word got around the meal morphed into a much larger event, ultimately serving 700-800 people out of a small school cafeteria.
Hungry people would wait outside in the cold for hours before they could enter the school house and get their fix.
Meanwhile, a small typing classroom was cleared out and filled with a dozen 10” skillets from several volunteers around town. Each skillet would sit on a hotplate and fry oysters until there were none left to fry!
In the kitchen, Mrs. Hoover, Mrs. Ritter, Geneve Meadows, Mrs. Cardwell and 2-3 others carefully crafted the coleslaw by a unique recipe they had all agreed upon after much deliberation. Others are crushing plastic bags full of crackers by rolling them with a rolling pin. This will be the breading for the oyster!
When the event outgrew its original location, it would have ceased to exist if it weren’t for members of the community pulling together to keep tradition alive. In fact, nearly seven years passed before the event was resurrected. Perhaps the most dedicated family who has helped make this happen, is SWRE members, Louis and Betty Box and Dan and Twyla Elsener.
Louis and Betty were long time customers of the Manitou event but became involved first-hand when their daughter, Twyla (Box) Elsener, approached them one day with the idea to continue the festival, but this time in Frederick.
“The biggest reason the event crumbled in Manitou is because the trouble and expense of driving down to the coast became too much trouble –nobody wanted to do it.” Betty Box, said.
When Louis volunteered to donate the expense and equipment for picking up the oysters, Twyla went to work raising funds and generating excitement around town. From there the event exploded with the help of dozens of volunteers and guidance from the Frederick Chamber of Commerce.
Greg Howard is another volunteer who has been diligent since the beginning. He is the Volunteer Coordinator which means he rallies the troops to get the breading and frying done. Groups such as the Frederick cheerleaders, football and basketball teams generally help as does the Manitou juvenile students and several sororities and community organizations around town.
As you can imagine, it takes this many volunteers to make the event happen. After Trevor delivers the oysters, Twyla and help wash and count every single oyster before they are distributed into bins.
On the morning of the event, the volunteer groups gather together to dip the oysters in a milk mixture before rolling them in cracker crumbs and organizing them into trays. The entire system has been finessed to a science over the years. Every helper has a unique role to play in the oyster orchestra.
Outside, Dan Elsener assembles his key players and prepares them for the frying. Long past are the days of 10” skillets on hotplates, now a dozen farmers are each given a large skillet about two-feet in diameter. Rather than a typing classroom, the fryers have their own outdoor station blocked off from the crowds for safety and leveled with iron workspaces that resemble a kitchen counter.
FFA students are busy shuffling back and forth between the kitchen and the fryers. The cold, breaded oysters have to be taken to the fryers when they are ready and the hot, fried oysters must be moved inside immediately before they have a chance to cool off.
Just like the Manitou days, the kitchen is full of helpers putting together a large batch of coleslaw using the original recipe. Today the slaw is mixed in huge tubs by local ag students.
Other community volunteers are covered in plastic gloves, aprons and hairnets as they dish out servings to each individual who comes through the line.
Today the event is Frederick’s most revered event. The small town serves approximately 1,000 people in a three-hour time period. Oysters come fried or on the half shell and are served generously next to a helping of Manitou’s original coleslaw, chips and bread.
It is people like Louis and Betty and their family that have helped create a sense of community pride and fellowship through involvement and volunteer participation. Their desire to see the event return and grow has inspired many people young and old to volunteer their time for the cause of the community.
It is this sense of community that encompasses the sixth cooperative principle of “concern for the community.” SWRE has always been a strong staple in the Texhoma communities it represents and it will continue to be so in the years to come. We are proud to serve the communities our member-owners represent. We could all take a few lessons from the Box’s and their dedication to their community.
For more information on the Frederick Oyster Fry, visit the Frederick Chamber website here.