On a Wednesday morning, Mary Beth Carter is busy dipping chunks of fresh walleye into cornmeal and plopping them into sizzling oil. Her "kitchen" consists of a closet-sized area in a small gray-shingled building in front of her fish market. She serves walleye, catfish, and carp through the three tiny windows of the concession stand.
Carter runs one of three local concessions that offer fried fish to go, giving customers a taste of a county fair or neighborhood fish fry without the pony rides and massive crowds. These fish wagons are an alternative to a drive-through fast food: The fish is fresh, fried, and fast.
"Fish is something people really like," says Carter, who owns Carter's Fish Market with her husband, Barry, a pipefitter and commercial fisherman. "It's something you usually don't get most places. You don't see many fish stands."
While customers stop by to purchase fresh fish, the shingled "shack' just a few feet away has them standing in line all year-round. The simple structure, decorated with colorful fish on the front, is just big enough to prepare and serve the food. The menu is uncomplicated: walleye, buffalo, catfish, carp, river fries, coleslaw, and soda.
Carter worked for the state after graduating from high school, but her career took a turn when she married her husband, an avid fisherman. Twenty years ago they decided to buy a newly opened fish market on South Grand Avenue. The business was given the family name and the couple, who live on the Sangamon River, decided to follow the lead of fish markets that cook on the side. So three years later they started up the deep fryers and have been operating one of the few local fried-fish stands ever since.
The fish is purchased from a market on the Mississippi River, about 20 miles north of Quincy. The busiest time of year is Lent, Carter says, but customers remain steady year-round.
"A lot of people liked baked fish--it's good for you, I guess," she says, almost reluctantly. For Carter and her customers, there's no comparison to the old-fashioned fried variety. The favorite fish is walleye, which is often dubbed "walleye pike" but is actually a member of the perch family. Its mild, white, thick meat and simple bone structure make it easy to prepare and eat. The walleye sandwich consists of a pound of fried fish on white bread, with onions, pickle, and hot sauce, if requested. Customers consume a couple of thousand pounds of fish a week, Carter says. Catfish is also popular.
Carter says the casual atmosphere attracts customers, even in the dead of winter. They're willing to wait in line for that taste of summer on a slice of bread. "I think it's because we're cooking fish all the time, you don't have to go in and sit down. Some people take it to the park. People do call in and we have it ready and packaged to go."
The business also sells fish to local restaurants and other vendors, including Linda's Walleye Wagon in Cantrall and T and M Concessions in Pawnee. Tom Lederbrand owns T and M Concessions with his wife, Maxine. After years of buying fish from Carter's Fish Market, the former Army cook decided four years ago to try his hand at operating a walleye wagon in his hometown of Pawnee. Now the Lederbrands, along with their two daughters and other family members, serve walleye, scored buffalo, catfish filets, chicken nuggets, and riverfries on Friday nights from a wagon parked in a grocery store parking lot.
"I like cooking for the masses, I guess," Tom says.
Though there are many local restaurants and taverns that served fried fish, Lederbrand says the convenience of the fish wagons make his kind of food service unique. "It's quick. It's all 'to go.' Many people stop by on their way home from work. Some people don't like to wait in a restaurant."
Lederbrand's walleye wagon serves about 175 customers each Friday night in a few hours, going through between 120 to 140 pounds of walleye, 30 pounds of buffalo, 145 pounds of catfish filets, and 140 pounds of french fries. Even in the dead of winter?
"Oh, God, yes. The worse the weather is, the more they come out."
He knows one more reason why customers keep clamoring for more.
"You don't have the smell of fish in the house for two days afterwards."
Carter's Fish Market is located at 1900 South Grand East. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wed., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thurs.; 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fri.; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat.
Linda's Walleye Wagon is located on Route 97 in Cantrall. It's open in the summer months from 4 to 7 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fri. and Sat. The menu includes walleye sandwiches, corn dogs, tenderloins, and onion rings.
T and M Concessions is located in the parking lot of the Pawnee Food Center, 618 Fifth Street in Pawnee. Hours are 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays.