' Coyote Moon Vineyards - Traditional Thousand Islands shore dinner: A menu that hasn't changed in more than a century
Traditional Thousand Islands shore dinner: A menu that hasn't changed in more than a century
By Don Cazentre | dcazentre@syracuse.com

Obviously, the major element of the traditional Thousand Islands "shore dinner" is fish -- freshly caught and fried.

And you'd guess Thousand Island dressing for the salad.

But don't forget the French toast. Or the sandwich of fried pork strips.

These are some of the essential ingredients in the type of shore dinner that Thousand Islands charter boat captains and fishing guides have been serving up to their guests since Ulysses S. Grant was president.

"We do the exact menu and the preparation just the way it was when Grant came up to visit George Pullman (a wealthy 19th century industrialist) in 1872," said Jeff Garnsey, a seventh generation charter captain, fishing guide and shore dinner chef. "Nothing has changed. That's the tradition."

That tradition is having something of a revival in the Thousand Islands community of Clayton these days. Not only are charter captains like Garnsey and Clay Ferguson serving the traditional dinners to their fishing passengers, but the community shore dinner - a big event that attracts the land-locked -- is coming back.

"Everybody likes to be on the river," Garnsey said. "Not everybody likes to fish."

After more than a decade without such an event, Garnsey teamed up with Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton to bring back the community shore dinner two years ago. The third annual dinner, with proceeds benefitting the Thousand Islands Museum, is Friday (details below).

"It's one of those great old traditions," said Kristina Randazzo Ives, who works at the winery founded by her parents, Phil and Mary Randazzo. "We have the hard-wood fried fish, the salt pork sandwich, the salt potatoes and corn on the cob, and the traditional French toast. It's a real old-fashioned shore dinner."

In a 2004 story published in Voices, The Journal of New York Folklore, writer Lynn Case Ekfelt described a Thousand Islands shore dinner this way:

"The shore dinner menu never varies, and its creation is almost ballet-like --- not a single wasted motion."

Shore Dinner Lore

Jeff Garnsey grew up on the St. Lawrence River, on Grindstone Island, and learned about boats, fishing and shore dinners from his father and grandfather.

He then spent 20 years in the Navy -- working in food service -- before returning and setting up his guide service, Classic Island Cruises. He's also a history buff, and has made himself something of an expert on shores dinners past and present.

Not that much of it has changed.

According to Garnsey, the ritual goes like this: The captain takes passengers out on the river early and the catch fish until noon. Then the skipper put ashore, and starts a hardwood camp fire.

"All the work is traditionally done by the captain," Garnsey said.

Most of the dinner comes together in one cast iron skillet.

"There's nothing complicated about the tools," he said.

The first steps are cleaning the fish - again the captain often does this - and frying up the pork.

Traditionally, this was fatback - strips of fat taken from the back of the pig. Nowadays, it's more likely salt pork, which is really just salted fatback (but the name sounds better).

The salt pork is cooked until it renders the cooking fat, and produces golden brown bacon-like strips.

Captains in Cape Vincent and Alex Bay today sometimes use bacon, Garnsey says, but he sticks to tradition.

"The great thing about salt pork is that the fat will stay stable to 450 or even 500 degrees," he said. "And unlike other fats, it doesn't retain the flavor of what's cooked, even fish. That's important when you get to the French toast. "

The solid pork bits are scooped out, and served on a slice of bread with red or purple onions, and, in Garnsey's version, topped with Thousand Island dressing. (The dressing itself has a long and mysterious history, and inspired a PBS documentary a few years ago.)

Garnsey uses thick bread, like Texas toast, and suggests people fold it up like a taco.

This pork fat sandwich serves as the shore dinner appetizer.

"It sounds odd, and people don't expect it to taste as good as it does," Garnsey said. "I've never seen anybody who doesn't like it."

Next, while the salt potatoes and then the corn are cooking, the captain turns his attention to the fish. Typically, on the St. Lawrence, the shore dinner fish are perch, bass, northern pike or, if anglers are lucky, walleye.

Modern guides fillet the fish, though it's likely in the past the fish were sometimes cut into chunks, and cooked with the bone. Northern pike are tasty, Garnsey notes, but they have some wide bones that must be "surgically removed." Guides know how to do this efficiently.

The fillets are breaded and fried in the pork fat. They're served with the salad.

As dinner heads toward dessert, Garnsey sometimes uses an old guide's trick he picked up: If he's using a camp coffee pot - one without a filter where he's just boiling the grounds - he cracks an egg and dumps it in, shell and all.

'The grounds will actually stick to the yolk at the bottom, so you can get every drop out without grounds," Garnsey said.

The traditional shore dinner dessert is French toast, bread dipped in an egg and cream mixture, fried in the same pan as the fish, and almost always topped with local maple syrup. "It's a lot like the fried dough you get at the fair," Garnsey said.

A proper shore dinner can take hours, and it's obviously a lot of work for the captain, who in a traditional dinner still has to get the passengers back to the home port.

That won't be an issue for the community shore dinner this week at Coyote Moon Vineyards. Garnsey will have some helpers, and he doesn't have to get back in the boat.

It still will be something to experience, he said.

"It's like a train wreck," he said. "It's a big production, and a lot of people just want to see it done."


What: Clayton Community Shore Dinner
When: 4 to 8 p.m., Friday July 19.
Where: Coyote Moon Vineyards, 17371 East Line Road, Clayton
Entertainment: Live Music by the Foggy River Band | Hayrides for kids
Cost: $20 for Adults | $15 for Military with ID | $10 for Children 12 and Under.
Tickets Available at the Door
Menu: Dinner includes hardwood fried fish, salt pork sandwiches, salt potatoes, corn on the cob, tossed salad, and traditional French toast.
Benefit: All proceeds from the dinner go to support the Thousand Islands Museum
For more information: Call 315-686-5600


Shore Dinner French Toast
From nyfolklore.org

2 pints heavy cream, divided
4 eggs
Cinnamon to taste
Crusty Italian bread, sliced 1 inch thick
Maple syrup
Grand Marnier, bourbon, or Scotch
Frying pan filled with oil

Whisk together 1 pint heavy cream, the eggs, and the cinnamon. Dip the bread slices into the cream mixture, turning them over so both sides are well soaked. Place the bread slices in hot fat and cook them, turning occasionally, until they are golden brown and crisp on the outside (about 3-4 minutes.) Serve topped with a drizzle of the remaining heavy cream, then the maple syrup and the liquor to taste

Wellesley Hotel Thousand Island Dressing
(From chef and co-owner Gerry Brinkman)

2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Greek olives, finely chopped
1 tablespoon onion, finely chopped
1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped
1 tablespoon green pepper, finely chopped
1 tablespoon red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tablespoon parsley,finely chopped
1 tablespoon scallions, finely chopped

Make sure all ingredients are, neatly and uniformly, finely chopped by hand.

Mix all ingredients together and chill to blend flavors.

Serve dressing over a crisp wedge of iceberg lettuce, garnished with sieved
hard-boiled egg, crisp bacon lardons and sliced homemade dill pickles.

Makes 12 to 16 servings of dressing, depending on size.

Read the original article: http://blog.syracuse.com/cny/2013/07/inside_the_traditional_thousand_islands_shore_dinner.html

Post By:   Tony Randazzo