As youre being tempted by funnel cakes, fried chicken, candy apples and other traditional festival foods, the last treats you might expect to find along the fairway are wholesome grilled fish dishes, but thats exactly what many fair goers are welcoming in West Virginia.
Kenneth Semmens, an aquaculture specialist with the West Virginia University Extension Service, saw an opportunity to bring new, healthful food options into more fairs and festivals and jumped on the bandwagon �€the Fish Wagon, to be specific.
Semmens said the idea began several years ago when Paul Lovett, a vocational-technical school teacher in Monroe County, used his locally grown fish for purposes other than educational projects.
He was growing tilapia near where the state fair is held (Greenbrier County),Semmens said.Paul basically said, �€~Lets build a device to take the fish that we grow and bring it to the fair to sell.He applied for and received a grant from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and ran the first Fish Wagon at the state fair for a season or two.
Lovett found that running this sort of business took a great deal of time and effort. In 2004, Semmens picked up where Lovett left off. When Semmens got his hands on the self-contained kitchen, he realized that revisions had to be made.
I thought the design was good,he said,but it needed more product development. We needed to create a menu that tasted good but was also healthy.
To create the new menu, the WVU Extension specialist enlisted the help of cookbook author Mary Beth Gwyer of Tucker County. Gwyer was asked to develop recipes suitable to be cooked in a small kitchen on wheels.
Around this time, Semmens was contacted by Bill Grantham, the director of Aqua Green Trout Farm near Kearneysville and a member of the West Virginia Aquaculture Association.
Bill had been growing and selling fish for many years and was aware that the Fish Wagon needed to find more use,Semmens said.He knew that there was a need for it at the Jefferson County Fair.
A member of the Grace Episcopal Church of Middleway, Grantham sought the help of church members.
The church knew it was something they could feel good about doing, and each person recognized the need and helped out in their own way,Semmens said.
After receiving a list of 12 trout recipes created by Gwyer, church members selected a few that would be most suitable to prepare. A fish filet sandwich, fish taco, smoked trout plate and fish-cake sandwich were among those selected.
Preparation begins on a small grill: Boneless trout fillets are seared on both sides. After the trout is grilled, the skin is easily removed. The thickest part of each fillet is used in sandwiches, and the thinner end is used in fish tacos. Homemade sauces such as chipotle, tartar and salsa are offered to enhance the flavor of each dish.
In 2006, church members held a trial run of the Fish Wagon at a local yard sale. It went so well that they decided to take the business to the Jefferson County Fair later that summer.
The response to the Fish Wagon was very good,Semmens said.People who work at the fair and come every year have had the same food year after year, so it was something new for them, and it fit with the desire to eat in a healthful wayand it tasted good.
The tasty recipes are just one of the lures that please dinerspalates. Another is the fish itself.
The trout used in the recipes are received from both West Virginia and Virginia farms,Grantham said.It depends on the availability of the type of fish that we want. This year I had to drive to Front Royal, Va., to pick up smoked trout.
The Fish Wagon has made its appearance at two events this summer with great success, he said. The first event was the Field and Farm Day June 16 in Middleway.
About 247 people registered to come, and while I was trying to talk to them about what we do, they were more focused on getting to the Fish Wagon,Grantham said.For this event, we bought about 30 hot dogs to try out but ended up only selling around 10 or 12. Everyone wanted the fish sandwich because they had seen it in the brochure for the event.
The second event was a June 23 yard sale at Tudor Hall Farm Market near Kearneysville.
We were serving from about 9:45 a.m. to around 3 p.m.,Grantham said.The Fish Wagon was set up about 100 feet off Route 51. As people drove by, they stopped just to get something to eat and not even to come to the yard sale. A few people wanted to know if we were going to be there every Saturday. We had great success.
Such short-run events work best for the developing project, he said, which means that the Fish Wagon will not offer its delights at the seven-day Jefferson County Fair this year.
But you still have two other opportunities to catch the Fish Wagon this season. The wagons fare will be featured Sept. 22-23 at Charles Town Heritage Days and Oct.13 at Middleway Days.
And next summer holds much promise, Semmens said. He believes that while some changes need to be made regarding product presentation, the menu will improve each season. The aquaculture specialist still has the original 12 trout recipes and has decided to keep them for future use.
Our main goals in this project,he said,are to enhance aquaculture while promoting healthy eating.
For more information about the Fish Wagon or other WVU aquaculture research, production and marketing projects in West Virginia, contact Semmens at 304-293-6131 ext. 4211 or Ken.Semmens@mail.wvu.edu .