By JOHN KIENER
A group of men, together with sons and grandsons, attended the annual Wild Game Dinner at the McKinney Center on Saturday evening, Jan. 26. The origin of the dinner is uncertain but most of the “old timers” present believe it started sometime during the 1960s. The largest attendance anyone could remember at the dinner was 87. On Saturday, there were 75 in attendance. The group was composed of persons as young as 10 years of age and those over 80 years old.
What is certain is that Dr. Byrd organized the original Wild Game Dinner. Initial get-togethers were held underneath Sisters Row in kitchen quarters where at one time slaves cooked food for the three residences given to the daughters of Confederate General Alfred E. Jackson. The impetus for the occasion, according to legend, is that the wives of the original members were tired of “dead animals and fish” taking up room in their freezers. The men folk were told to do something to get rid of the wild game – and to do it quickly.
Therefore, the notion of a dinner was suggested. In the early days, there was an abundance of bear meat, locally caught fish and venison. Included in Saturday’s dinner for starters was “Uninhabited Organic Salad” or Mexican Corn Bread along with a selection of coffee, iced tea (sweet or unsweet) and wine. The main course featured ground venison, venison stew, hickory smoked pheasant, quail chowder, and wild Alaskan salmon with noodles. Vegetables included asparagus, baked beans, corn casserole, peas, potato salad, cinnamon sweet potatoes, Texas hash browns and rice. There was an abundance of desserts that included apple pie, blueberry pie, a butterscotch pudding, key lime pie and chocolate cake along with a selection of several kinds of fudge.
The group honored John Tomko, who has been responsible in recent years for organizing the Wild Game Dinner. This year the group was entertained by Brad Eastridge, who played the piano during the early portion of the two and a half hour eat and greet assemblage. Retired pastor Ed Wolfe provided the invocation. He said he remembered when he first attended the dinner only homemade wine was available for drinking. When he mentioned that he did not drink alcohol, he said a fellow attendee went out and purchased a six-pack of soft drinks for him.
The conversation was lively Saturday, with a discussions at several tables about the Number 1 rated Tennessee’s men’s basketball team that had handily defeated West Virginia during the afternoon while others were concerned about the East Tennessee State University’s men’s team that during the course of the evening defeated Western Carolina.
Not forgotten were past dinners where Jonesborough Attorney Jud Thornton cooked bear meat and venison in Dr. Byrd’s kitchen. When the men gathered at the Three Sisters, there was never enough room for everyone to sit down and eat. Therefore, the eating was done in shifts, with the early diners either sitting around the edges of the room or in good weather exiting the building and gathering in the yard behind the Three Sisters.
Later, the venue for the dinner was moved to Old Quarters on Main Street.
There, Attorney Bob Green would regale listeners with stories about his days practicing law and Mayor Kelly Wolfe would play the piano, usually attracting some of the men to join him in a sing-along. Others mentioned former County Attorney Bob May’s attendance and how he could fish all night and bring his catch to the dinner.
I remember when my father-in-law Art Winston cried remembering the sad occasion of his wife’s recent passing. Alfred Greenlee consoled him, telling him that he also had suffered the loss of a loved one as had other members of the group.
By the end of the evening, Winston went home in better spirits, saying that he had enjoyed the evening.
As the group departed the McKinney Center, they agreed that it has provided a great venue for the dinner and that they were anxious to attend again next year.