August 04, 2002 11:00 pm
FAIR MAINSTAY: Vicky Lamoreaux prepares food at the Lions Food Booth.  (The Observer/T.L. PETERSEN).
FAIR MAINSTAY: Vicky Lamoreaux prepares food at the Lions Food Booth. (The Observer/T.L. PETERSEN).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

It is 10:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the last day of the 2002 Union County Fair.

The deep fat fryer is warming up, as is the grill, at the Lions Food Booth. The metal canisters of soda have been connected to the drink dispenser, filling one corner of the food preparation area, and the first problem of the day has just been discovered.

The woman at the counter had purchased a refreshing cup of ice tea.

But, she reports, it isn't ice tea. It tastes very much like coffee.

Vicky Lamoreaux, the "boss of the day," checks it out. Yep, it's definitely iced coffee, not iced tea.

Lamoreaux, grill cook Dennis Watterson, and Lois Rieke handle the situation — dump out the coffee that was left chilling in the ice tea container in the refrigerator, get new tea started, and sent off the customer with large smiles, apologies and a refund, and more apologies.

There really isn't time to figure out what happened Friday night during the final hours of the fair's busiest day.

Normally the Lions' food booth runs smoothly, despite the fact that it is almost always being staffed by people who don't usually work in the food service industry. Sometimes the person taking your order is an attorney or a judge, sometimes a high schooler, an office administrator or a bookstore owner.

Lamoreaux and Rieke confer, and agree that the Lions' club usually begins setting up the schedule for the county fair in late June or July. For five days, Tuesday through Saturday, members of the club, their families and even friends make sure there are always at least two people cooking up orders from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The schedule calls for 15 people a day to work the booth.

Terry Hughes organized the Lions' food booth this year and last, and he's the one who knows how many pounds of hamburger and french fries and onion rings go through the booth. The Saturday morning crew only knows "it's a lot."

"We have really capable vendors," Rieke said, watching as the last of the pop canisters gets connected. "They keep us stocked."

Lion Jerry Brookshire shows up to get something to drink. He confesses he's not working the booth this year, manning his own insurance booth instead.

As many as 15 to 16 new people join the club most years, and working the county fair is part of new membership.

"I have neglected my duties here terribly," Brookshire said, trying to look repentant. Then his grin comes through. "But I've been running up a huge tab."

No one at the food booth can remember when the Lions first started serving at the fair, but all agree it's been years and years.

Lions member Carlos Easley can track the food booth project back to sometime before 1946, his first year with the Lions —"longer than I care to remember," he said.

Easley also knows that during the first years of serving fair visitors, Coke cost a dime and was served in glass bottles out of tubs of cracked ice, hamburgers cost a quarter and the booth made its home under a tent. It had no running water — or sinks.

And every night, the Lions put down fresh sawdust for the next morning.

Today, everything costs a bit more (a burger costs about $3.50), but the booth still makes its money — it's the Lions' largest fund-raiser of the year — serving traditional fair food.

At the grill, Watterson said the favorite is easily the double cheese Lion burger. Lion balls, deep fried doughnut balls dipped in sugar, also are popular, and the 4-H and FFA kids, Rieke said, like the nachos and cheese fries — french fries smothered in nacho cheese sauce.

Getting the grill just right, venting correctly so as not to fill the dining area with grill smoke, has been an ongoing project, Watterson said, involving at least three redesigns and finally the addition of a movable grill.

"I think the last two years we've hit on the right combination."

Lamoreaux eyes Watterson as he gets the grill ready.

"I don't do hamburgers," she said emphatically. "I wear glasses — the grease!"

"You go blind," Watterson agreed, thinking about hours of flipping burgers with grease popping up into the griller's face.

And for all the potential problems — ice tea mix-ups, staffing, learning the equipment fresh each fair — the hardest part of running a fair booth is coordination of orders.

"It's trying to get everything out at the same time — the burgers, the fries, the drinks, the Lion balls," Rieke bemoaned. "We're people who don't normally work food service."

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