PHOTO OF THE DAY: GOOD EATS (AND OTHER GOODNESS)
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
It was 10 years ago that Chad Soulek attended a rib cook-off in Corsica at the invitation of longtime friend and fellow firefighter Josh Gerlach. So impressed was Soulek with the event that included representation from fire departments across the area that he brought the idea back to Freeman with him.
“I said to our department, ‘I don’t know why we can’t try this here and make it a go,’” he told The Courier. “We took a chance and went with it and here we are.”
Here we are is nine years into one of Freeman’s most enjoyable summertime jams that has unfolded on the grounds of the Swimming Pool Park every August since 2014, the inaugural year that Soulek deemed both “incredible” and “fantastic.”
Both of those adjectives could be used to describe what happend again Saturday afternoon, evening and into the night as the 2022 installment of the FVFD’s biggest fundraiser was another smash hit.
It’s impossible to say how many attended, but between the afternoon activities, big crowd in the evening and those who enjoyed the live music late, attendance had to be four figures.
“Just another great day; no two ways about it,” said Soulek, who was the primary organizer each of the first eight years but got help from a committee this time around. “It feels like our local gathering with neighbors getting together and having a good time. It’s pretty simple. If you cook it they will come; that’s the way it looks, anyhow.”
The numbers show just how big it was.
Twenty-six fire departments were represented — the most ever.
Seven hundred racks of ribs and almost 600 lbs. of brisket were cooked — the most ever.
Everything sold out — again.
The volleyball tournament, an add-on in recent years, was a thrill for those who took part.
And the bean bag tournament, which drew 28 two-person teams, saw a dramatic finale as Freeman’s Allan Scherschligt and Austin Smidt went toe-to-toe with father-son team of Leon and Brandon Adema of Sioux Falls. Scherschlight and Smidt lost to the Ademas in the double-elimination tournament but came back to win in the second game, only to drop the winner-take-all final.
“That’s what you want in a championship,” Scherschligt said. “Just back and forth.”
Meanwhile, men, women and children, mostly from the Freeman community, soaked in the vibes of a perfect summer day and those taking part in the cook-off reveled in the environment.
“It’s grown into something so big; there are so many competitors now who come and do this one,” said Chad Miller, who joined his dad in representing Yankton. “As many as we do every year, this is by far the biggest. Hands down.”
Miller ended up taking first place in the rib competition — something he takes seriously.
“We have a lot of fun throughout the whole day, but at the end of the day we still want to be the best — we want to win,” said Miller, who has attended all but the first of the FVFD’s cook-off. “We want to win for the personal gratification in knowing that, out of all these cooks, I made the best product. It’s getting so difficult anymore. Everybody is backyard cooking these days so we’re constantly changing and adapting to what people want.”
Miller noted how strong the barbecue culture has become.
“I don’t know if it’s people wanting to cook at home from their back yard or, ‘hey, I saw this guy doing this and I can do that — I know I can do that’ — and I hope that’s what it is,” he said. “I had a young gentlemen sitting here earlier, probably 12, and he asked me if I’d come cook for him. And I said, ‘No, but I’ll teach you.’ And to see a generation that young that is interested in this, it feels great. They see what we do and they see that we can help support other departments.
“It’s a lot of self-gratification, but in this sense, in this atmosphere, it’s to help Freeman.”
And to that end, that’s what Saturday’s event was — and is — all about.
“It’s kind of like mutal aid, just like when we need help at a fire,” Soulek said of the support of all the departments who come out and cook. “And the community support is just fantastic.”
As for the growth of the event, Soulek isn’t sure how much bigger it can get. Pulling it off takes 100% support of every firefighter on the team.
“To make it run smooth it just takes the whole department,” he said. “There were times when I took a break and sat down and just watched. Those guys were running around like ants. They were just so busy — it was crazy. And we’ve got to go all day; we don’t get a break.”
As for the amount of food prepared and served, Soulek said they may have reached the limit of how much can be done.
“We really think that maybe we have; that’s the big conversation now,” he said. “We will meet Wednesday and go through the goods and bads and start planning for next year.”
Mostly, though, Soulek just marvels at the unyielding success of an idea that has turned into one of Freeman’s marquee events.
“We just feel so blessed with the support we get,” he said. “It’s unreal.”