Among the many things that make the Delaware State Fair the annual summer tradition it has been for 94 years is the volunteer spirit of those who cook the Delaware Grange’s fried chicken dinners– the best food on the fairgrounds. The farming families that volunteer each year, working in the cramped galley kitchen in the un-air-conditioned cinderblock building, put out thousands of pounds of chicken dinners to fair-going families over the ten days of this traditional Delaware event.
Despite the urban image associated with Delaware, from the Rehoboth beaches to northern New Castle County, Delaware remains an agricultural state, among the nation’s top five poultry producers. The Grange dinners celebrate that proud tradition with their annual Fair fundraiser, money going to Future Farmers of America scholarships and contributions to the Home of the Brave veterans groups.
In advance of the fair, a sea of campers begins to form, flanking the fairgrounds. “We move in two days ahead of the Fair’s opening just to get ready”, said Barbara Marvel, chair of the food committee. Despite the sweltering temperatures and intense humidity, the Grange crew make ready their preparations.
The place is filled with longtime volunteers, each with a specific role, each of which are passed on with advancing age. For instance, Miss Betty’s husband Merv was the chicken fryer for more than 30 years, but now Chip Marvel has taken on that responsibility. Everything is scratch made. There are hoards of chicken trimmers, potato peelers, spice mixers, grill masters and cashiers. The FFA and 4H kids come in to help as well, many working well past their assigned shifts. “How can you use me? I’ll do anything you need,” they ask.
The fried chicken recipe is a closely guarded secret. Although I pressed the question, no one would disclose the ingredients. Of the preparation, the crew said,
“Well you dredge it in the flour mix, flash fry it then pop it into the roasters so that it cooks till tender. No buttermilk soaking here", Chip told me. More than 20 roasters full of chicken per day are prepared. According to master fryer Chip, no one has been able to duplicate the preparation off the fairgrounds. “It must be the air or the fairground dirt,” he said. We’ve tried taking the fryers home, using the same oil, the same spices and the same chicken farmer. We just can’t do it.”
“It’s a lifelong tradition," Chip said. "Volunteers keep coming back year after year, from teenagers to oldsters. We can’t give it up. You won’t get a better chicken dinner anywhere in Delaware in July than at the Fair.”
Grange dinners include the chicken, corn on the cob tomatoes and potato salad. In a long-standing Delaware tradition, potato salad is made with boiled dressing. As it turns out it’s the same as my mother in law, a Delaware native, made. The character of the sauce graced her summer table just as famously as it does the Grange dinners. That recipe is no secret and I’m proud to pass it on.
½ cup sugar
1 ½ tsp dry mustard
½ tsp salt, dash pepper
½ cup milk
1 beaten egg
½ cup vinegar
1-2 tbs mayonnaise
Combine dry ingredients. Add egg, milk and ingredients except butter and mayonnaise. Cook in a saucepan over low heat for 10 minutes till thickened. Add butter and stir till absorbed. When finished, add the mayonnaise to complete the thickening. Cool.
Prepare potatoes for potato salad. If desired, add minced pickle and hard boiled egg slices. Pour dressing over the potatoes and chill in refrigerator till serving.