The award-winning and nationally-renowned Cookers served their last meal Friday at Bootheel Tractor Parts in East Prairie. The business was celebrating the one-year anniversary of its service department with an open house for customers, according to B.J. Shankle, office manager.
Many believe the Cookers are closing up shop due to the loss of Teddy "The Pillar of Truth" Bennett who died Jan. 19, 2005.
While Bennett was an important and colorful part of the group, "that's not the main reason," according to Harold Lemons of the James Bayou Cookers. "We had talked about retiring before Teddy died - we knew we couldn't go on forever."
At their peak, the Cookers had up to two dozen volunteers cooking and serving at their largest events but the numbers have dwindled in recent years.
"It's got down to where there's not many of us," Lemons said. "We're getting older and some aren't as healthy as we used to be - it's got to be more than we can do."
The James Bayou Catfish Cookers were established around 1984.
"We got started on a dare," recalled Sid Drummond, one of the original Cookers. "Paul Adkisson dared us to go to Memphis and cook for a contest at Mud Island. Teddy called four of five of us and we went down there."
In addition to Drummond, Bennett recruited his son, Sam, his brother-in-law, L.C. Miller, and Jackie Brewer.
"The first two years we didn't do any good," Drummond said.
The James Bayou Catfish Cookers returned to win the competition in both their third and fourth attempts the following years.
As their reputation grew, the non-profit Cookers found themselves cooking for more and more fund-raisers and events.
"Before we started slowing down we were getting about a 100 a year," Lemons said, although "this past year we slowed down a lot."
"I worked eight hours at Noranda and then hurried home to cook," Drummond recalled. "Sometimes we did that three days per week."
"I kept up with it one year and we cooked between 12,000 and 14,000 pounds of catfish," Lemons said, "and over 400 gallons of hush puppies. I'm sure that since then, we've cooked more than that in some years."'
Things became easier in 1995 when the group got a custom-built trailer with cooking pots mounted to it - a big improvement over loading and unloading kettles on and off the standard 16-foot trailer it replaced. "Before that, we just set stuff in the back of our trucks," Lemons said.
The Cookers became the food vendor of choice and a regular fixture for annual events like the Kenny Rogers Telethon in Sikeston and the Charleston Dogwood-Azalea Festival in addition to fund-raisers for schools, churches, nursing homes and even political rallies.
"We've done several for Jo Ann Emerson, and for Bill Emerson before he died," Lemons said. "It would take a week to tell you all what we've done."
One particularly memorable event was cooking for Noranda's 15th anniversary. "There was about 3,200 we fed that day - that was the biggest cook we ever had," Lemons recalled.
The Cookers also cooked for the entire state legislature in Jefferson City for State Rep. Lanie Black. "We did that three or four years in a row," Lemons said.
As their main-dish repertoire expanded to include smoking chickens and Boston butts, the group decided a few years ago to drop catfish from their name and became the James Bayou Cookers.
If anyone was interested in carrying on the name, they haven't stepped forward yet. "If we called around we could still probably get several. But most are busy and just don't have time anymore," Lemons said.
And being a Cooker takes lots of time. In addition to cooking and serving at events, there is plenty of work behind the scenes such as maintaining the equipment and placing orders for food and other supplies.
"You have to keep enough stuff on hand to do these fish fries with," Lemons said, "and that's a full-time job, almost."
Frequent volunteers over the years have included Bill Brewer, Brother Bennett, Danny Russell, Eddie Marshall, David Brewer, David Mann, Bobby Ditto, Calvin Lemons, Rick Givens, Dave Hodge, Phyllis Lemons, Alfreda Miller, Pat Ray, Dru Burton and Linda Abner.
"There's probably 100 more if I could just think of their names over the years who have helped," Lemons said.
"It's been a lot of fun," said David Brewer, who participated in the last cook Friday.
While people have asked if the Cookers could possibly just do a couple events each year, "it's almost impossible to cut back," Lemons said. He said they are definitely going to completely retire from the operation.
"We had a lot of fun over the years, met a lot of people, but it's just gotten to be more work than we can do," Lemons said. "We're getting tired. I'm 69, Jackie is 75, Sid's 72, so we're all getting on up there."
The Cookers still haven't decided what to do with all their equipment.
"I don't have any idea - we haven't got that far yet," Lemons said. "Somebody will take over I hope - somebody will do something."