Only three people can list the ingredients of the Costa Mesa-Newport Harbor Lions Club's secret fish batter recipe.
President Mike Scheafer is one of them, and he claims that the directions will probably accompany him to his grave. The 59-year-old Costa Mesa resident created some wiggle room, though, when he admitted that he might share the coveted information with his oldest son, Matt, who is a fellow club member.
Dinners — for $10 they include the famed fish, French fries and coleslaw — will be offered at the Lions Club's 66th annual Fish Fry and Carnival from Friday to Sunday.
"It's the best fish anywhere," said Scheafer, who over the years has inherited the title Mr. Fish Fry. "Even people who don't like fish like our fish."
Local foodies can also devour hot dogs and hamburgers, grilled by Estancia High School's baseball team, while a group from Banning Ranch prepares corn on the cob.
"As much as it disappoints me to say, there are things other than fish to eat," he joked.
Scheafer said the club was established in 1927 and soon put together a hamburger festival, which lasted through the '30s. In the '40s, Heinz Kaiser, who lived in Costa Mesa for many years and was the namesake of Kaiser Elementary School, came up with the undisclosed piscatorial concoction.
The club has been selling fish dinners ever since.
The switch was "extremely successful," Scheafer explained, "because no one else in the area had ever done anything like it."
A small-town camaraderie
In the past six-plus decades, the fish fry has faced many changes, including a new venue at Fairview Park, the discontinuation of a long-standing parade and the introduction of beer in 2012.
What continues to this date, though, is a sense of camaraderie palpable among the nearly 15,000 visitors. For those who have grown up in the area, the fish fry is a highly anticipated ritual.
"There's a sense of reconnecting with old friends and high school chums," Scheafer said. "I see them once a year and it's at the fish fry. This is definitely a small-town community type of event."
Scheafer notes the decline in Lions Club membership — something he called typical of service clubs nationwide — and says the fish fry provides people an opportunity to inquire about getting involved.
"There's not been a tremendous amount of growth, but we have had some success," he said.
Also on tap this year are carnival rides, live musical performances and a pageant for babies, ages 6 to 24 months. Trophies are awarded based on the babies' cuteness quotient and personalities and how they act.
The grand prize will be an iPad, replacing the usual automobile because of the cost involved, Scheafer said. Participants can buy a meal or raffle ticket to be eligible.
Scheafer's participation with the Lions Club began as a young boy when his father would man a soda pop booth. He recalled, with a chuckle, tending to packs of girls and "never being at a loss for dates."
He joined the club full-time upon a close friend's request. To date, Lions Club membership is by invitation only.