Savory aromas wafted across the carnival grounds in Sykesville during the weekend as volunteers prepared foods for the annual event that opens today.
The auxiliary -- not just ladies anymore -- of Sykesville-Freedom Volunteer Fire Company carved 300 pounds of roast beef, diced pungent onions, marinated the famous bean salad and brewed gallons of iced tea, preparing every do-ahead dish possible.
That would save time today, when members turn their attention to about 250 pounds of crab meat, uncounted gallons of potato and macaroni salads, and the plethora of side dishes that would fill dinner platters.
If the kitchen crew needed any reminder of why they labored, they had only to listen to the sirens blaring on ambulances racing from the station.
This Sykesville station on Route 32 in southern Carroll County handled more than 1,500 emergency calls last year. Ambulances cost $100,000 and usually wear out in less than five years.
The auxiliary raised about $40,000 at the 1997 carnival, selling roast beef platters, barbecue and pies. Carroll County funds 90 percent of the operating budgets for its 14 fire companies, but the carnivals, bingos and dinners are vital to maintaining the all-volunteer effort.
"We will keep doing it until the tradition dies out," said Sue Tarrant. "We want to stay volunteer. We don't want to say that we can't do this job."
The numbers of volunteers dwindle every year. Nancy Bowman, carnival food chairwoman since 1990, said 15 people working steadily through Saturday will log 1,300 volunteer hours this week. Preparations start about 3 p.m. and closing can be as late as 2 a.m. The carnival opens at 5 each evening.
"Of the 12 people I can depend on, seven are over 70," said Bowman. "It should be more of a community effort, but people just don't volunteer."
Volunteers check a to-do list posted in the kitchen and set to work. Jeff Tarrant, Sue's husband, trimmed the fat from the hefty roasts and passed them to Bowman, who operated the meat slicer for nearly three hours Saturday. Volunteers returned the sliced beef to the commercial freezer as soon as it was carved.
"It will be the tenderest beef in town, once it cooks again for the evening," said Bowman.
The auxiliary is bringing back crab cakes this year, a popular dish that had become too labor-intensive and pricey. Bowman once mixed more than 500 pounds of crab meat by hand after volunteers had picked through for shells.
The market price has dropped enough now that the auxiliary can buy from a local restaurant and sell crab cakes for $5 each -- a bargain, but still the costliest item on the carnival menu. Evelyn Fleming, 78, will be frying the Maryland delicacy every night, keeping at least two skillets going.
Louise Varner, 75, lugged a 50-pound bag of onions from storage and asked Bowman, "How far do you want me to go?"
Bowman needed at least half the bag. Slicing by hand is harder, but the food processor makes too much onion juice, Bowman said. Varner is a pro who peeled the onion skin in one deft cut.
"I have spent a lot of years chopping onions and done a lot of crying," Varner said. "It cuts down on sinus infections."
Onions are the favorite garnish for the 120 pounds of hot dogs and 72 pounds of sausage sold each night.
Emily Celly, Bowman's 72-year-old mother, handled the manual can opener. Suppliers had promised commercial-sized cans, but delivered hundreds of the one-pound variety. Celly oversaw production of 80 pounds of bean salad. Frances Rosier, 69, does not remember bean salad donations from the days when neighbors provided supplies for the carnival kitchen.
"Years ago we used to go to all the houses in the community and ask for donations for the carnival," said Rosier, who has volunteered for 50 years, 10 as carnival chair. In those days, volunteers did not set the menu until they knew what donations had arrived.
"The Health Department would never let us do that now anyway," said Bowman. Health inspectors closely monitor the kitchen and food preparation at all carnivals.
Generations of the same families worked at the carnival, said Rosier who remembered standing her children on stools so they could squeeze lemons.
Lin Shell, Rosier's daughter and a former lemon squeezer, is the hamburger lady now, grilling about 300 every night.
Streamlining has saved time and labor and diligent recordkeeping from previous carnivals helps with the preparation each year.
Like many of the younger volunteers, Bowman takes a week's vacation from her job at Springfield Hospital Center to work at the carnival.
"Most of us have to go back to work to rest up," said Sue Tarrant. Both women worry about how long the carnivals can continue, without volunteers to replace the aging members.
With support from the community, the departments can remain volunteer and continue to save taxpayers money, Bowman said.
"This is for you. We are saving you money," said Bowman. "This is not a private club. Come out and help us."
Pub Date: 6/15/98