Jesse Hoskin is an optimist.
The guy in charge at Collinsville American Legion 365 expected a good turnout for the first Friday of Lent fish fry, despite ongoing road construction and an approaching winter storm.
“It’s not really going to hit us till we are done,” said Jesse, a tall guy who wore a red apron over a royal blue sweatshirt. “I kind of figured business would come in early, which it did.”
By 5, the legion hall on Illinois 159 buzzed with action.
A batter duo dipped and coated cod. A cajun cut-up team sliced small pieces into even smaller pieces (“It’s something new we started last year. We have some tails we can’t sell. What’s left over, we cut it up.” They were an instant hit.) Baskets of North Atlantic cod, shrimp, fries, hush puppies and crab cakes sizzled in the fryer. Every few minutes, someone rolled in a bucket of cod that had been filleted the day before. One set of workers took orders; another filled them, checking each Styrofoam box for accuracy.
“Everybody has a job here. They do their job and it works like a machine. We all learn all the jobs.”
Jesse pointed out a new guy on the crew.
“He came in and didn’t want to be just a member. We told him he could work the fish fry. That’s the way it usually starts.”
Jesse, a U.S. Army vet, was the new guy in 1987. His wife Janice also started then.
“I’ve been here the longest,” said the 68-year-old who is retired from Ameren. “I worked on large power lines in a bucket. When I started here, I would get off work and come out. Elmer Bohn was the cook at the time. He showed me how to do what I needed to do.”
Cook each piece to golden perfection.
A warming unit held a tray of cooked catfish.
“Trust me,” said Jesse. “They don’t stick around too long.”
The fish fry tradition began in 1956 when Oscar Schiller fried up 50 pounds of fish.
“It grew on what he did that first fry,” said Jesse. “At one time, we were up to 1,600 to 1,700 pounds. Hopefully, we’ll get back to that. We don’t try to compete. We just try to do what we do and do it well.”
Customers appreciate the effort.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere,” said Mark Perkins, of Edwardsville, carrying a cardboard box with to-go orders. The Air Force veteran recalled sharing fond fish fry memories with another metro-east airman when stationed far away. “One thing we could talk about was Collinsville fish fry at the American Legion.”
Vern and Julie Parmley, of Staunton, dine in. They meet up with Julie’s family almost every Friday.
“It’s pure white cod fish,” said Vern, who was working on a plate of Cajun cod. “I have never had a bad fish.”
“I love it. It’s great,” said his wife, Julie as server Teresa Bradtke set down her cod plate, “and I am not a fish person.”
We asked Jesse a few fish fry questions.
Is it usually a smooth operation? “As long as you have enough help.”
How much help do you need? “Twenty to 25 people. It’s all volunteers. The money we raise goes to our legion veteran programs, scholarships, baseball, you name it. We help the less fortunate, and use it to pay our bills.”
How did you end up in charge? “I am the one who could never say no. I learned to cook from the older people at that time. Now I are one. I kept at it. We take pride in turning out a good product. North American cod. We fillet it ourselves. It’s all fish, not the compacted stuff or fish patties. We get a whole fillet crew that comes in and cuts it, gets it ready, and Friday we come in and try to sell it.”
Anything changed over the years? “Not too many things. We tried different brands like everyone else does. We settled down to the original cod we had in 1956 when the fish fry started. We’ve been getting good feedback.”
What makes it so good? “Our seasoning, and that’s all I can tell you.”
Most popular side? “We stay with what we have always been good at, two basic sides, slaw and French fries. We also serve hush puppies, crab cakes, shrimp and whole catfish.”
How long are you there? “On a typical Friday, I get here at 2 and I’m here till a little after 8. In Lent, I get here a little earlier and help with the lunch crowd. We have three modes of getting it. You can walk in and order, call ahead and we’ll get it ready for you, or you can come in and be served. Carryout is most popular.”
How much fish do you sell? “During Lent, it can run anywhere from 400 pounds to 700 to 800 pounds on an average Friday. With the road construction and everything — I’m not knocking it. It will be an improvement — a lot don’t come around this way. We would like to do better. People know what to do. Get customers through in a reasonable amount of time.”
Best compliment? “That it was excellent. People will let you know when you do something wrong. We welcome that. If it’s good, I like to hear that. If it’s not good, we like to hear that so we can correct.”
Do you get tired of fish? “The fish is delicious. When you cook for a long time, it’s the old adage, ‘the cook eats more than he sells.’”
Have you had any problems during the fish fry? “We have had times when stoves have gone out or power has gone out. That you don’t have control over. We have found a way to get around it. We’ve been fortunate. Someone is watching over us.”
Do you take the fried fish aroma home with you? “I smell worse than a fish when I get home.”