Food for thought

Not only does the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department’s annual rodeo give the area a chance to experience outstanding professional rodeo competition, but approximately 4,000 food lovers line up during the four-day event for the once-a-year opportunity to enjoy one of the most unusual dinners served anywhere.

The main attraction is the roast beef that is cooked for eight hours over open wood fires. Fire department president Bruce Gustafson, who also serves as the head chef, says that they begin cooking at 5 a.m. each morning over specially cured maple wood, with the cooking temperatures being controlled by raking the hot coals in and out of the fire pits. Gustafson keeps a close eye on the meat temperatures to assure that the meat is cooked to perfection. He adds that approximately 5,000 pounds of beef will be consumed during the rodeo as it is also available in sandwiches in the concession stands. The beef is then transferred to an enclosed room where volunteers slice it to make it ready for serving. Gustafson is now in his eighth year as the head chef after spending 18 years slicing meat.

Another unique item on the menu is the potatoes, which are a favorite of many. The process begins each morning as volunteers peel and remove the eyes from the potatoes and cut them into chunks, which are then partially cooked in water over the wood fires. The final step is to deep fry the potato chunks until they are crisp.

While this is going on, Chef Gustafson is busy preparing the secret recipe barbecue sauce that adds the final touch to the dinners. He says the recipe has been passed along for years with only a few people having access to it. He will make approximately 90 quarts of it each day. Other items included in the meal are gravy, salad, corn, cottage cheese, rolls, drinks and ice cream. The cost is $11 for adults and $6 for children. Combination tickets for both the dinner and the rodeo are available at reduced rates.

Within the last 10 years, the open air dining room has been converted into a modernized, air conditioned dining facility that is supervised by Gustafson’s wife Paula, who sees that her approximately 35 daily volunteers make the event run smoothly. The volunteers include everyone from the adults who serve the meals, the kids who wash the silverware and the assistants in the dining room. The Chautauqua County Health Department closely supervises the entire process to ensure that all health standards are met. Paula and her husband take their vacation to volunteer, and some days spend most of the 24 hours in the kitchen.

The rodeo opens on Wednesday, July 30, at 8 p.m. with evening performances continuing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with an afternoon matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The dinners are available beginning at 5 p.m. each evening prior to the rodeo.

This is the 70th consecutive year that the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department has brought rodeo to this area, making it the longest consecutively running rodeo east of the Mississippi. The stock contractor again this year is Painted Pony Pro Rodeo. Additional information is available at the rodeo website www.gerryrodeo.org or by phone at 985-4847. Tickets can be purchased online at ticketfly.com