FRENCHTOWN— In 1888, Reverend Eugene Cogneville hosted a chicken fricassee dinner to celebrate the dedication of the current Saint Hippolyte Church building.
Those in attendance enjoyed the sense of community, and the taste of the homemade chicken so much that 125 years later, that tradition is still going on.
On Sunday, July 25, those who ordered ahead can pick up their half chicken, just like people in Frenchtown have done since the 1800s.
The menu — what they call the traditional Frenchtown menu — consists of a half barbeque chicken, or a “generous” portion of ham, served with real mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, coleslaw and a dinner roll. Those with a sweet tooth will be happy to know the meal comes with a slice of apple or blueberry pie.
All the food is homemade. Event organizer Joyce Tarr considers it a labor of love.
Just like when your mom would make a simple recipe taste gourmet, the food served is made with love and years of tweaking recipes to perfection.
The centerpiece is the chicken, coated with the secret Frenchtown sauce, something Tarr would not even reveal to The Herald.
They don’t give out any of the recipes, because, according to Tarr, “(the food) is so good, once you have eaten it you don’t go anywhere else.”
Tarr, who has been in charge of the meal since 1984, said that the Frenchtown chicken reputation has traveled far.
Over the years, through word of mouth, the parish and their volunteers have cooked up thousands of meals, including a record 2,100 meals in a single year.
“You just mention the Frenchtown dinner and people from Meadville, Titusville and Erie all have come, eaten our food, and know about us,” she said.
Volunteers come out the day before the event at 5 a.m. to prepare the food. Everything is made by hand, with no shortcuts.
One of Tarr’s favorite parts of the weekend is getting up early and peeling the potatoes with those who come out and help.
“The people are so into it and into each other. It’s a friendship thing,” she said.
Often Tarr herself will come to cook at 5 a.m. and won’t leave until well into the night, sometimes not going home until 9 or 10 p.m. Those 16-17 hour days though are something she is now accustomed to,and you won’t here any complaints. “It is well worth it,” she said.
Back in the day, the food was prepared in the homes of the parishioners.Due to changing times, and more stringent Health Department regulations, they now make the food together and use a really big barbeque.
All the chickens are par-boiled and slowly cooked over charcoal, the way its been done for decades.
Tarr remembers her great-grandparents cooking the chickens back in the day, and remembers her grandmother making pies in the kitchen for others to enjoy. Participating in the chicken dinner is a family tradition, but one that Tarr hopes to pass along soon.
She said that as of recent, the event has been getting smaller. Since 2005, according to Tarr, the amount of meals served has declined. The pandemic also didn’t help.
Now, the parish is looking forward to seeing the next hey-day of the Frenchtown chicken tradition.
“Unfortunately, the younger people just aren’t taking it over,” said Tarr, who is in her 80s, “It does take a lot of work, but it’s a really good tradition.”
The proceeds of the meals benefit the parish of Saint Hippolyte in Frenchtown, and also Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Cochranton. Volunteers from both churches help out with the event.
During last year’s event, Frenchtown volunteers served 1,032 dinners. This year, they hope to surpass that number and build momentum so that this event may be here for at least 125 more years.
Dvorkin can be reached by email at Gdvorkin@titusvilleherald.com.