There will be no Dodson podcast this week.
OK, I admit it.
On the way to the 14th annual Aberdeen Sardine Festival, I stopped off and had a double cheeseburger with all the trimmings, large fries and jumbo sweet tea. It was a thoroughly satisfying lunch. My wife the Health Nazi would have been completely appalled.
On the other hand, when I see her sometime today in Maine, I won't smell like a trawler that's been to sea a little too long. Canned sardines are either your thing or they aren't. In my case, they aren't.
They were my grandfather's, however. He spent a lot of time alone in his carpenter's workshop in a shed at the back of his property up in Orange County, eating canned sardines, thinking about life, and smoking King Edward cigars. I think my grandmother let him into the house only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She hated the smell of sardines, too. When you think about it, it's a miracle I'm here to tell this tale today.
Sardine eaters are a lonely if dedicated breed, which makes Aberdeen's Randall Moss something of a social revolutionary and a fellow not to be trifled with -- or stood too close to when he's eating his favorite smelly finger food.
'Helps the Legend Grow'
Fourteen years ago, Moss' daughter Kay chased him out of her business in Aberdeen, and Randall turned himself into a local legend.
First he rounded up half a dozen of his friends from the First Baptist Church and the Bojangles breakfast crowd, who agreed to eat sardines with him.
Next he and pals Paul Davis, Bill Thorpe and Jack Smith started the International Aberdeen Sardine Festival in Aberdeen Lake Park, and 35 people who only saw the insides of their houses on Thanksgiving and Christmas turned out to support his smelly habit and generously donate to local charity. They even selected a Sardine Festival queen. The fact that the sardines in question came from neutral waters off the coast of Maine, some say, gave the event its International flavor.
The next year, twice as many people followed their noses to Aberdeen Lake Park -- including the queen of England, Mick and Bianca Jagger, the rock group Phish, and most of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir minus a few weak-kneed tenors.
OK, I made this last part up. But only because the founder himself urged me to.
"Feel free to make up any old bull about the festival you want to," Moss said. "It only helps the legend grow."
Sixty-five people, point of fact, did turn out on the second year of the festival. And the year after that, a couple hundred showed up to eat sardines, saltines and Moon Pies, washed down by an ocean of RC Cola. Randall Moss, after all, believes firmly in a well-rounded diet. Sardines are rich in omega oils.
"The biggest crowd we've had is around 60," he explained Friday afternoon just before the latest Sardine Festival queen arrived in her livery of an Aberdeen fire truck. "One year it rained three inches and 300 people still came out to eat sardines with us."
Since its inception, he pointed out, festival donations to the local Recreation Department have topped $10,000.
"It makes you feel good think something so good can come from something so smelly," the founder said.
This year, perhaps owing to chilly weather, the crowd size was down slightly. But the sardine madness was in high gear by the time this year's queen arrived with a half-dozen former queens.
"This is the proudest moment of my life, and I want to thank you all for making me your queen," declared Carol Gelfo, 45, who made her own hoop dress and festival sash from material her grandson Aiden might have picked out after too many viewings of "The Little Mermaid." "I know now why I was born. My life finally has real meaning."
Moments after she was crowned, the new queen reflected on her surprising selection.
"I remember it so well," Gelfo said. "I was standing beneath Tiki No. 1 at Gulley's Garden Center when Mr. Randall Moss suddenly appeared and informed me that I'd been selected to be this year's Festival Queen. I was then subjected to rigorous mental and physical testing to determine whether I was fit to serve the sardine-loving world."
Gilfo coyly refused to provide details of this process. "It's top secret. If I told you I'd have to kill you," she explained, adding: "But I will tell you that what I told the selection committee. I think it cinched the deal -- namely that the Bible neglected to mention that on the seventh day God created sardines and finally rested."
Last year, Festival Queen Betty Upchurch wore an actual mermaid outfit with flippers and had to be carried by the town's firemen to the reception podium. This year, Betty came in a tasteful black ensemble sans flippers that included her tacky tiara and feathery headgear. "When a women reaches a certain age," Upchurch said with a regal sniff, "you strive for a little more elegance."
Former queen Nancy Oakley, however, was a woman chasing fishy immortality, decked in a brilliant turquoise outfit that included bobber-laden fishnet, feather boa, sardine earrings Richard Simmons would die for, and Dame Edna glasses she found somewhere online.
Oakley was once so determined to be named Aberdeen Sardine Queen that she and her friend Mary Lou Vaughan showed up wearing homemade banners and tiaras and actually worked the crowd for support. "We kind of crashed our way to the title," she explained with a blush. "We're a true secret sisterhood of sardines."
Chipped in former fish queen Dolores Richardson: "I've rarely had my beautiful plastic tiara off since it was placed on my head. I don't even take it off in the shower."
Richardson explained how her mother, Nellie Williams, was originally pursued by the festival selection committee in 2003 but turned the honor down. "She said 'Absolutely not -- but I know my daughter would love to do it.' She was right."
Last year, Richardson's teenage daughters Molly and Whitney dressed up like sardine queens and won best costume prizes at a local Halloween party. "You see?" she said, "that's the power of sardines."
I'll Try Them Next Year
This year's slightly smaller crowd meant that several cases of sardines went unopened. But festival T-shirts, fast becoming a must-have among the international festival-going set, were once again a sellout.
"We used to get the sardines for free from a company in Port Clyde, Maine," explained founder Moss. "But then the company was bought, and we had to buy them ourselves. The good news is, they keep at least three years in the can. So, if nothing else, we have a start on next year's festival."
The newly crowned fish queen agreed.
"I'm looking forward to representing sardine eaters everywhere," declared a somewhat chilled and breathless Carol Gifford. "Everywhere you go this year, I'll be there waving at you and reminding you to eat more sardines. By the way, have you tried the sardines yet? They're fabulous."
I admitted that I hadn't. I only came to get a banana Moon Pie and one of the festival T-shirts before they were snapped up by all the celebrity collectors.
"You really should eat sardines," Queen Carol declared, already peddling the selection committee line. "They're full of omega oils and extremely good for you."
"Maybe next year," I said, grabbing an RC Cola and making a beeline for the T-shirt stand before Bono or Cher could get there.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson is writer-in-residence at The Pilot. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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