Eastville Fish Fry: A Tradition In Transition

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Never before at the Eastville Fish Fry have so many people stopped by and left with their stomachs still empty.

It was a takeout-dining-only affair on Saturday for the first time in 28 years of the traditional community gathering hosted by the Eastville Community Historical Society, thanks to a shortage of financial backing and volunteer manpower.

“It was a big to-do years ago,” said Jackie Vaughan, 86, the historical society’s board president. Ms. Vaughan, who moved to the Eastville section of Sag Harbor in 1975, said the fish fry once was a centerpiece of the community social calendar.

“We’d go right down to the docks and the fish market and buy the fish from the fishermen,” she said. “We would have tents and chairs brought in, a few hundred people come out, eat, talk, really build a community atmosphere,” said Ms. Vaughan, who lovingly refers to her adopted hometown as “Harlem in the Hamptons” because so many of those she has ties to in Eastville were, like herself, originally residents of Harlem.

“But the support for the historical society and interest in our history has kind of waned with the younger generations,” Ms. Vaughan said. “It is still a great event, I look forward to it every year, but it’s … different.”

Georgette Grier-Key, director and chief curator of the historical society, also sees the need to get young people involved in the organization’s future if there is any chance of bringing the Fish Fry back to prominence.

“The Fish Fry is something that was done by extended families and friends in this neighborhood long before we made this a fundraiser for the organization, sort of ad-hoc family reunions,” explained Ms. Grier-Key. “Then it grew and grew until the organization was spending $10,000 a year, and that just wasn’t sustainable.

“There were some years we had to cancel the event,” she continued. “But every time we discuss dropping it, there is a surge of overwhelming support and we do it again. The bottom line is, we either have to get more support from the younger generation—every member of our board is over 86 years old basically—or make it more manageable like we did this year through the take-out only.”

The need for an influx of new enthusiasm for the history of the community was a recurring theme of the event.

Lora Rene Tucker’s mother, Kathy Tucker, 88, was a founder of the historical society and her great-uncle, whose name momentarily escaped her, was the very first chef. “I remember my great-uncle with a carload of smelly porgies, cleaning, scaling and cooking. It was a bunch of families becoming a family,” said Ms. Tucker.

“It is my responsibility to keep this history alive,” said Ms. Tucker, “and not as an African-American trying to keep alive a minority history.”

“This is American history,” she said. “I’m a fifth-generation American. Our history shouldn’t be segmented, but this fish fry and its legacy should be incorporated into the global history of the village. We are a part of Sag Harbor.”

Whereas dwindling support for the fish fry may end up leaving residents with one less summer social, the longer term implications of a generation that is not interested in the history the society upholds, including a stop on the underground railroad and a cemetery of forgotten whalers, frightens Ms. Tucker.

“Unless people start stepping up, when we lose the people that are here running everything,” she said while motioning to the elderly women working the cash table, “then we are going to lose our link to history.”

Ms. Vaughan couldn’t agree more.

“I’m done,” she said. “I should be sitting around with my feet up. It is time for the next group to step up and reinvent some of our ideas, while keeping our history intact.”

Reinventing the fish fry to bring it back to its prestige of yesteryear is something that Michael A. Butler, a historian for the organization, looks forward to. He suggested that the historical society could one day soon partner with another group, such as Save Sag Harbor, to stage the annual event, since Save Sag Harbor has a similar goal of staying in touch with the village’s roots.

“Maybe in a few years it will be something else entirely,” Mr. Butler said of the fish fry. “Maybe it becomes a couple-day-long festival, you never know. We’ve thought of not having fish and doing chicken instead. We’ve tried to tweak it quite a few times.

“But in the end, whether it is take-out, sit-down, or a black-tie event, people want their fish fry, and I hope we can keep bringing it to them, whatever the form.”

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