Fish Fry draws fans from Knoxville to Carolina

J. H. Osborne • Aug 14, 2016 at 2:00 PM

OTTWAY — Perfection in my “Destinations & Diversions” world of adventures is when both elements converge. No matter our destination, for my family and many of my travel-buddy friends, food is often the most appealing, pleasurable and memorable diversion. Sometimes the food is so good and memorable, it becomes the destination. I am about to describe one such case, with a goal of getting readers to share similar venues and fare.

This chapter of my “Destinations & Diversions” blog is one of what I hope will be many to come about something I think a lot of you may be missing, and I want to let you in on — or perhaps just remind you of —the secret. On just about any given weekend, somewhere in our region, you can find one or more community meal events: fish fries, barbecues, breakfasts (Bloomingdale Ruritan even offers “Breakfast for Supper”), and bean dinners. Most are fundraisers. All offer a chance to socialize over a good meal. You can go with or meet friends, and you’ll likely make some new ones — especially if there’s any sort of an election going on anywhere nearby anytime soon. If you frequent these events enough, you’ll easily recognize when a candidate is approaching — and soon realize they are not offended, but actually appreciate it if you’ll quickly let them know you don’t live in the district they’re running in. They’re looking for votes, after all.

I have attended several fish fries throughout the region, and as I stated above, I plan to give coverage to as many as possible in the future. I am starting with Ottway for a simple reason: it’s always the first Friday of the month, and its the first I was able to get to since I’ve been given the opportunity to write my “Destinations & Diversions” blog for the Kingsport Times-News. I am also very familiar with it, thanks to good friends Kevin Davis and Ronnie Barlow who live in Greene County and first shared the Ottway Fish Fry experience with me four or five years ago. I’ve been back every chance I’ve gotten. I’ve introduced other friends to it. On occasion, I’ve introduced friends to each other through a visit to it.

That was the case last week, when I left Kingsport headed to Ottway with my longtime friend (and partner in adventures) Vicki Cooper Trammell riding shotgun. We were to meet Kevin and Ronnie there. Vicki had never been to Ottway. And somehow, she and Kevin and Ronnie had never met. When we eventually sat down to eat, the three of them had more to talk about than me. Vicki and I had arrived early so I could talk to some of those who put on the fish fry. But before I could even begin that, there was a huge diversion for both Vicki and me: Pies and cakes and other sweets. Tables full. All homemade.

Dessert is not included in the $12 all-you-can-eat (dine-in only) fish fry — which actually features not just fish, but chicken breast strips and popcorn shrimp, in addition to freshly ground slaw, french fries, and hush puppies. Instead, each month the Ottway Ruritan folks allow various other community groups to operate a bake sale along one wall of the indoor dining hall. The groups rotate, offering them a way to do a little fundraising as well. We hit the jackpot: it was the Baileyton Ruritan’s turn at the bake sale this month, and they offer a wide selection of scratch-made pies and cakes, by the slice or whole. Vicki and I spent a lot of wait time more focused on what kind of sweets we would take home than what we were going to have for dinner. It was a real struggle choosing. Whole cakes or pies were $10 each. Choices included German chocolate cake, peanut butter pie, coconut pie, chess pie, chocolate pie, lemon pie (my favorite, but sold out before I got there) and fresh strawberry pie. I decided on strawberry. But I didn’t want to buy it until after I ate because I didn’t want to put it in the hot car. It sold out. And only later I realized that the nice ladies of the Baileyton Ruritan bake sale would have put my name on a pie and put it in the cooler until I was finished with my meal. I ended up with coconut pie to bring home and it was delicious. I was glad they were out of strawberry.

But enough of the diversion, back to our main destination: the fish fry.

The Ottway Ruritan has been putting on a monthly fish fry for decades. It’s hugely popular. They typically serve anywhere from 400-600 meals each fry. While many diners choose to sit at the long communal tables in the indoor dining hall (and partake of the all-you-can-eat aspect), there’s a steady, at times a dozen or more deep, line at the carryout window. Carryout diners actually account for a majority of business, one organizer said. They see some folks almost every month, but there seem to be brand new attendees each month. And the fry draws regular customers from “just all over,” from Knoxville to Bristol. “A lot come from Rogersville,” one organizer said. On the night we visited, there was a large group that had driven over from North Carolina.

There’s a lot of action going on behind the serving line in the kitchen, as volunteers keep the assembly-line-like production of food going nonstop for more than four hours. The Ottway Ruritan fish fry officially runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Work, of course, begins well before — and lasts well after. The seafood is all hand-battered and fried, basket after basket. The 14 deep fryers are manned nonstop: two for chicken; two for fries; two for hushpuppies; two for shrimp; and six for fish. Fish is definitely the main draw (it is a FISH fry, after all), but there are some folks so enamored of the chicken that if they arrive and the fry has run out of chicken, they’ll turn right around and leave. All the fryers are filled with fresh vegetable oil for each month’s fry. A typical grocery order for a fry might include something like 200 pounds of chicken, up to 400 pounds of fish, and 100 pounds of cabbage. The events are held the first Friday of each month, year-round. Winter months seem to draw the biggest crowds, with February often bringing peak turnout.

So, if you want to go to Ottway, here’s the best I can tell you on directions. From Kingsport and Sullivan County: get southbound on Interstate 81; go to Exit 36 (Baileyton); at the top of the ramp, turn left onto Tennessee 172 toward Greeneville; after about five miles, begin looking on your right for a sign along the roadway that announces “Ottway Ruritan” is off the next right (Ottway Road). Ottway Ruritan is located at 2435 Ottway Road (if you are doing a map search online or by GPS, its postal address is Greeneville, TN, 37745), about 2.5 miles from where you turn off 172. At one point, roughly two miles out, you’ll come to a fork. Keep left.

And if you know of a fish fry, barbecue, breakfast, bean dinner or any other similar community fundraiser, please let me know. I will try to make the rounds and help promote as many as I can. Ultimately, I’d like to compile an easy reference list for readers to check and see which event is going on each weekend of the month.

Rock Springs United Methodist Church will hold its last fish fry of the season next Saturday, August 20. RSUMC’s fish fry is also immensely popular, with a menu that includes:your choice of white fish, blackened tilapia and shrimp, popcorn shrimp, baked potato or french fries, coleslaw, hush puppies, beans, homemade dessert and a drink ($10 adults, $5 children 10 and under). The fry is held in the Church Park at 1751 Rock Springs Road, rain or shine. Proceeds going toward local missions and needed church projects.