Fish Sammich Festival a new, yet classic tradition

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By JAY POWELL  |  The Daily Herald 

If there’s one thing with deep roots in the South, it’s celebrating age old traditions, and that usually means gathering around in large numbers, having fun and eating delicious food.

The fish sandwich, or “sammich,” is one of those timeless traditions, and every cook puts his or her own spin on the dish claiming to be the best. On Saturday, hundreds of Columbia residents came out to chow down on several versions of the dish at the first ever Fish Sammich Festival at Riverwalk Park.

The idea to host a festival devoted to the “fish sammich” started when John “Tee” Davis, master barber of Finishing Touch Barbershop, located at 809 Woodland St., told Needle & Grain owner, and local Columbia promoter, Bryson Leach about the dish. Pretty soon the idea became a reality two months ago when planning began.

“Tee and some friends, they had the idea about wanting to do a fish sandwich festival, because fish sandwiches are great and we should celebrate it,” Leach said. “He asked me if I wanted to get involved and I said, ‘Absolutely, count me in.’ So we threw some money together and figured out what we could do to spread the word, called our friends who make fish sandwiches and they said, ‘We’ll be there.’”

Leach said at first he wasn’t sure if he could gather enough sponsors, or if two months was enough time to plan the event, but everything came together and lots of people quickly became involved. Once the grills were lit and the aromas of white fish, catfish, roasted corn and barbecue wafted through the air, it didn’t take long for people to start pouring into Riverwalk Park early Saturday morning.

Organizers asked Chris Poynter, Director of Maury County School Athletics, to also be involved. He said there should be an athletic component to the festival as well. The event featured “adult field day” games, such as dodgeball, relay races, cornhole and tug of war, with several teams competing for a free shirt and bragging rights as champions of the day. CrossFit Old South came away the winners.

Of the 10 food vendors, Big E’s BBQ was voted best of the day, taking home a commemorative banner and bragging rights for future fish sandwich events.

A portion of the festival’s proceeds was also donated to Maury County Schools athletic programs. Sponsors for the festival included Dope Fades, Needle & Grain, Moni Monees, TraceInk Print Studios, Harris Janitorial, Mid South 5 Fitness, All Hands on Deck and Ah-Shay Creations.

“Most of the teams are from local fitness studios,” Leach said. “We hope this can be an annual thing, because fish sandwiches is something I’m very new to. Tee has an aunt who has a shop down the street from Shorn Barbershop, and she gave me one and it was so good, I knew we definitely had to do this.”

Those who weren’t competing in the day’s games walked among each food vendor, often waiting in long lines for a chance to taste all sorts of foods each chef had to offer. Some even waited as long as an hour and a half to sink their teeth into a few spicy “hot fish” sliders, barbecue ribs, Nashville hot chicken or a stock of Caribbean corn with chili pepper, cheese and butter.

“We waited an hour and 15 minutes for our food, but it was so good,” Columbia Tourism and Marketing Director Kellye Murphy said.

Asgard Brewery & Taproom also got in on the fun by offering five different flavors of special “festival brews” for attendees after the festival’s conclusion.

Even though the event could be considered a “hit,” Leach said what he hoped to gain from the experience was how organizers can make it bigger and better next year, and that each year more people come out to enjoy the delicious Southern tradition of eating fish sandwiches with other members of the community.

“It’s great to have another food festival in Columbia,” he said. “It’s very organic, in that literally 60 days ago we said, ‘Let’s do this,’ and it all just came together and was very impressive. I’m excited for how well this all came together.”

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