You get a baked potato, a salad, draft beer, and a raw steak.
And you have to cook it. All by yourself. On a grill. Fired by charcoal. There are hot spots, perfect spots, and those that struggle, and attention must be paid during the process to ensure the desired finish, and these long, bricked pits can be found on Wheeling Island, and in Elm Grove, Fulton, South Wheeling, and Bethlehem.
You take your own plates, your own silverware, your own grilling tools, and your own seasonings. If you are someone who likes to ruin your steaks with steak sauce, well, you have to take that, too.
And there’s always a cause to support.
It’s the steak fry, legendary throughout the Upper Ohio Valley but a mystery in every other community I’ve lived in or visited. They have steak fries in Iowa, but not in Pittsburgh’s North Hills or South Hills and not Annapolis or Baltimore. It’s long been comical to see the looks on people’s faces when they initially hear the term, “Steak Fry,” and the most common response before it’s explained has been, “You fry steak?”
No, no, no. I mean, we do fry almost everything, but never have I personally consumed breaded strips of steak tossed into oil at a bubbling 375 degrees. Some may have. Not me. That just sounds gross.
The steak fry is a science of sorts, and even the burliest of men carry in their picnic baskets packed with equipment and pre-meat snacks, too. Chips and pretzels, yes, but also melon cubes and cheese chunks, and those of us addicted to the baguettes and French “stinky” cheese sold at Good Mansion Wines tote along those goodies as well.
Along with the conversations that take place, there also are the games like Texas poker, Euchre, Hearts, and dominoes. It depends on the crowd, and it depends on the stakes, but no matter where we collect as a community during these feasts, everyone in attendance is intermingling. Each steak fry is a little different depending on the reason why we’re there in the first place, but we talk, and we eat and we blend, and we learn most of all. During this particular steak fry, I heard more of the horrors inside the jungles of Vietnam and about the explosive nature of Middle East deployments because we were there to honor Wheeling’s American heroes.
There’s Always The Cause.
It might be for a Little League ballclub or pigtail softball league, a non-profit organization or for a family in need, and the most heartfelt ones involve either a sick child or a dying adult. Funds are generated by a couple of extra dollars on the ticket price and with 50/50 raffles and also by volunteers floating from table to table raffling off slabs of bacon, pork loins, gift baskets, and sometimes even bottles of booze.
This past Saturday I attended the Wheeling Post 1 American Legion Steak Fry at the Italian-American Club in Elm Grove, and family and friends nearly filled a complete row of tables.
The goal was to feed the Post 1 membership for free to give back to those who have secured our American rights and freedoms. Those in attendance served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and during the war on terror, and many of them wore their ball caps denoting their deployments. There were a few men without two legs or two arms, and all of them were altered permanently during their duty. You just don’t see what these folks have seen and remain the same person.
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“It’s a good event for our members and their families because it brings us all together at the same time,” said John Fatigati, commander of Wheeling Post 1. “Usually we’re all together for one of the ceremonies we do, but steak fries are a lot of fun for everyone.”
I also had the chance to spend some time with Jule Berisford. His son, Julian, was killed in action on Nov. 4, 2009, in the Pakitika Province in Afghanistan, while serving his first tour of duty as a member of the United States Army. Julian was 25 years old and assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division at the time.
“Of course, I’m still very sad, but I like to come to these kinds of events with veterans so I can honor him,” Jule said to me. “These veterans understand it but most people don’t.
“Plus, who doesn’t like a steak fry? The steaks are huge, the potatoes are huge, and the people are great,” the Gold Star father said. “I don’t know why people in other areas don’t have steak fries, but I do know they should.”
The First Timers.
Sean and Jody Podrat had never heard of a steak fry. They reside next door to my daughter and her husband in Cranberry, Pa., and arrived at this event very curious but completely unprepared. No tongs, no seasonings – not even a steak knife. They were like children visiting a playground for the first time and in awe of the monkey-bar concept of steak making.
“It’s as basic as it can be. Find the fire and try not to burn it,” Sean said. “Once you find your place on the grill, it’s just like you’re on your grill at home, but finding that right spot is tough because someone else usually has it.
“When a better spot opens, you have to be quick but polite. I didn’t know anyone,” he added. “But this was cool, and we’re coming back to Wheeling. Oh, and we’ll be ready next time. Just you wait.”
Joe and Jeanette Morgan spent the entire weekend in Wheeling. Also neighbors of my daughter’s, they had heard so much about the Friendly City that they wanted to experience it for themselves. Since it was a “First Friday,” they rode the trolley and visited the downtown district and Centre Market, and they were especially fond of the Moose Lodge 2621 on 12th Street. Neither of them had attended a steak fry before Saturday, and they were just as confused as the Podrats.
“It sounded crazy at first,” Joe admitted. “But this is how I want to eat steak when I’m not at home from now on. This way I get it the way I want it. Not too overdone. Seasons the way I like it. Perfect.
“This event topped a great weekend for us,” he continued. “If we were in the position to be able to move here, I know we would definitely think about it. But it’s good to know that Wheeling is only 75 miles down the road from us because we’re coming back because there’s so much to do and the people are the friendliest I’ve ever encountered.”