Men-only oyster dinner a 53-year tradition at Slovak church

Cooks from the Knights of Columbus rely on other community volunteers to help them cook and serve more than 1,300 oyster dinners Jan. 29 in Slovak.
Cooks from the Knights of Columbus rely on other community volunteers to help them cook and serve more than 1,300 oyster dinners Jan. 29 in Slovak.

Despite freezing temperatures and nearly two inches of sleet on the ground, the Knights of Columbus in Slovak served 1,325 people at their annual oyster dinner Friday, Jan. 29 at the fellowship hall of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church.
“On a good year we have about 1,500 people attend,” Paul Hook, oyster dinner raffle chairman, said. “The weather does not affect us too much. Fortunately the electricity stayed with us until 10 p.m.”
The knights begin cooking the oysters around 3:30 p.m. and the line begins shortly thereafter, Richard Lisko, a knight and dinner committee chairman, said.
“We start cooking in the afternoon and finish about 8:30 in the evening. People come in, eat and visit, and then leave. There are always seats available,” Lisko said. “When the weather is good, the line can be a quarter of a mile long though.”
The oyster dinner in Slovak is a long-standing event with its roots closely tied to the members of the church and the local Knights of Columbus council.
“Back in 1947, there were three stores in Slovak and one of the stores was a gathering place for local men,” Hook said. “The store owner and those men, including my father, decided to do something different for a dinner. How they decided on oysters, I’m not sure.”
One of the men was able to order the oysters through a store in Stuttgart, from a fishing company in Louisiana. At the first dinner, they had two bags of raw oysters in the shells, which had been shipped by train to Stuttgart, Hook said.
The dinner caught on and became an annual event organized by that store owner and his friends. Later, when the Knights of Columbus organized their council at the church, the store owner, a Catholic and a member of the knights, passed the tradition to the knights, Hook said.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger and now we issue 1,600 tickets,” he said.
Just as the tradition of the oyster dinner began, so did the tradition of it being a men-only event.
“We’ve never said only men can come, but we don’t usually have that many women,” Hook said. “We have had women show up one year, but not come the next year.”
In a rural area such as this, the size of the event is tremendous considering the number of families at the mission in Slovak is only 88.
“We have people come in from across the country including Texas, Indiana, Mississippi, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee,” Hook said. “Some fly into Stuttgart and drive up just to attend the dinner.”
Hook said most of the 1,600 tickets are sold before the next event is planned. Tickets sell for $25, when one is available, Hook said.
“I remember when we only served 300 to 400 people and had to work to sell those tickets,” Lisko, a 31-year knight, said. “Now we print the tickets, give them to the knights, and they sell to their regulars. We really don’t have to sell.”
The crowd is a diverse group from all vocations including the political arena.
“Bill Clinton was a regular. Normally, the governor attends as well as state representatives and senators,” Hook said. “We don’t promote this as a political event and don’t give them a place to speak, but they are welcome to meet and greet guests waiting in line for their oysters.”
Guests at the dinner also include the bishop and many priests, he said.
With a crowd so large, the amount of food is also large. This year’s dinner served 230 gallons of fried oysters and 70 gallons of raw oysters. One gallon is equal to about 120 oysters and at $45 to $50 a gallon, estimating correctly is a necessity, Hook said.
Lisko said one person typically eats 16 to 18 oysters in one of their servings.
The knights receive the fresh, but ice-packed, oysters via tractor trailer the day before the dinner, Hook said. The morning of the dinner starts with Mass and then to the kitchen where the oysters are breaded and ready for frying. They used 1,700 pounds of cracker mill to coat the oysters and prepared 60 gallons of cocktail sauce. They served up 600 pounds of cabbage served with 20 pounds of slaw dressing. That evening 200 gallons of oil were used to fry the oysters.
“It takes a lot of people to have a successful dinner. We have help from friends, neighbors and community members,” Lisko said. “Without that help, the Knights would not be able to do it.”
Lisko said he and his five brothers all participate in the oyster dinner.
“Everything just falls into place because everyone has a job and they do it year after year,” he said.
The oyster dinner is a the main fundraiser for the Knights of Columbus council and the proceeds support a wide variety of charities and organizations including Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, Holy Rosary School in Stuttgart, Special Olympics, Easter Seals of Prairie County, the baseball association in Hazen, the Stuttgart Education Foundation and several more, Hook said. A final tally on funds raised is not available, Hook said.
In addition to the raffle donors, several companies donate their goods and services, including Sisco, Ben E. Keith and Riceland Foods in Stuttgart.
“For as long as I can remember, Riceland has picked up the oysters for us,” Lisko said. “They schedule a rice load near when the oysters are and bring the oysters back. It is a huge savings for us.”
During the dinner, the guests were given a chance at eight door prizes and they could participate in a raffle featuring 17 prizes including guns, shotguns, TV, grill, wrist watch and gift certificates.

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