As the dog days of summer begin to fade into football season in Alabama and the smell of firewood begins fills the cool night air, the Cahaba River Society (CRS) is planning their annual catfish-and-hush-puppy Fry-Down on Sunday, September 29.
The Cahaba River Society’s Fry-Down, presented by Amerex, is an annual event aimed at raising funds and awareness for the beautifully diverse ecosystem that is the Cahaba River. The event will take place along the river bank in Trussville Springs.
The Cahaba, considered by many a treasured natural resource, is recognized around the world for being home to more species of fish per mile than any other river in North America. The CRS and its members are striving to keep it that way.
“Overall, what we are trying to achieve with this stewardship of the Cahaba, and since it is located in a growing urban area, we feel like it is our role to help connect the community with the Cahaba, so that people can really understand the value of this river and what makes it so unique,” Monica Carmichael, director of development for the CRS, explained.
“One of our goals is to educate people who are involved in community development and growth and figure out how we can develop in ways that are protective of the river and also our drinking water,” Carmichael said.
In addition to its value as an ecosystem, the Cahaba is also is one of the main water supplies for the Magic City, something else the CRS hopes to preserve.
The Fry-Down is one of the CRS’ biggest fund raising events of the year, and has a far-reaching impact. Beth Stewart, executive director of the CRS since 1995, is optimistic that this year will be the best Fry-Down to date. “The Cahaba River Fry-Down is our biggest annual event. For years we used to have an indoor dinner and silent auction event, and we had been doing that since the early ‘90s. It became a really popular event and more and more organizations pitched in and it became a really successful type of event to have,” Stewart said.
“We decided that we wanted to bring people to the river. So we completely reconsidered the event and made it into an outdoor festival four years ago,” Stewart said.
One of the challenges of bringing such a large event to the Cahaba is the fact that the river is largely forested and is accompanied by many steep banks and tough terrain, Stewart explained.
“Because the Cahaba is so forested, there aren’t many big festival grounds. So finding an acceptable place to accommodate this kind of festival was fairly challenging,” she said.
Eventually a place caught the collective eye of the society: a spot on the river that was once home to a factory in Trussville had to be cleared. This created an open, albeit slightly damaged location — at the time — for the Fry-Down.
“They did a beautiful job restoring that property,” Stewart said. “So since it is so open, it’s very easy to get into the river there, which is great for the children,” she said, mentioning that the event is free for children less than 12 years old. Tickets for adults, however, are $20, which buys all the catfish one can consume.
The CRS wanted the Fry-Down to be an affordable, educational festival for families from all walks of life. After all, they say, Birmingham as a whole is responsible for this natural wonder that weaves through the backyards and forests of the city.
This year’s Cahaba River Fry-Down will feature a beer garden with beer provided by several local breweries. “We’ve recognized how popular craft beers are in Birmingham recently, so we wanted to add that to showcase what Birmingham is all about and cater to the younger residents,” Stewart said. “It’s wonderful how many craft beers we have available here now and we really want to highlight that.”
George Sarris of the Fish Market will be heading up the judging for the cook off. He will also be providing the fish for the cook off. Some of the prizes include best overall, crowd favorite and the skinny fish (healthiest dish) award. “This year we have 13 teams competing,” Steward said, adding that this is the most that the event has had to date. “Each team cooks about 24 pounds of fish, first for the judges and then for the crowd,” she said, adding that there is enough fish to feed every mouth that is present and that there will be vegetarian options available for the herbivores in the crowd.
“For us, the sponsorship we receive from donors and corporate partners make this event really be successful for us financially, and as the crowd grows so will our revenue,” she said. “It’s a significant way for us to raise money for our educational programs, and we are so deeply grateful for that.”