You want fries with that?
Editor's note: Leading up to opening day, Tim Mitchell will introduce you to some of the faces of the Champaign County Fair. Today: Cullers clan still serving after all these years. Thursday: Livestock a family affair for Mahomet's Turners. Friday: Dewey's Susan Long, a motorcyclist on a mission
URBANA — When visitors head to the Champaign County Fair this weekend, many will flock straight to one of the main attractions: the french fry trailer.
And, for the 69th straight year, a member of the Cullers family will be there cooking and dishing out fries drenched in salt and vinegar.
Jim Cullers of Springfield has been a french fry chef at the county fair since 1981, when he was just 17 and working for his uncle.
"My Uncle Forrest was a World War II veteran who came home looking to start a business in 1945," Cullers said. "He was out in Pennsylvania one day, saw someone selling french fries in cone cups and thought it was a good idea."
The elder Cullers teamed up with a fellow investor, Hal Fiske of Florida, and Cullers french fries was born.
Seven decades later, the Cullers family operates three different french fry trailers that set up shop throughout the summer at various fairs and festivals in Illinois, Georgia and the Carolinas. Last week, they pulled a double, working at both the Fisher Community Fair and the Moultrie-Douglas County Fair.
But Jim Cullers is proudest of his family's relationship with the Champaign County Fair.
"This will be 69 years in the same spot," he said.
Cullers is so passionate about the family business, he even credits the french fry trailer for helping him find his true love.
"It was 2004, and I was selling french fries at the Christian County Fair in Taylorville," he said. "I saw a beautiful woman working in a concession stand across the street, and I just had to meet her.
"She told me her name was Darcie. To make a long story short, we got married in 2005."
While Darcie spends the other three seasons working as a teacher at St. Agnes Catholic School in Springfield, she can be found on many hot summer nights alongside her husband, serving fries.
What's the secret?
"I buy the right potatoes and use a good quality shortening," Cullers said.
Each April, he orders 23 tons of potatoes from a company in Decatur and locks in a price for the county fair season.
"April is when they start cleaning out the potato bins in Idaho," he said, "and that's when you can get the best prices."
When Cullers' shipment arrives, the potatoes are still in their skins.
"No frozen potatoes for us!" he said.
As for preparing them, Cullers said the fries are made right there at the fair.
"The process takes about eight minutes from the time it is a potato to French fries," he said, reviewing the familiar seven steps.
Wash. Peel. Slice. Soak. Dry. Fry.
"Put salt and real apple cider vinegar on it," he said, "and serve it to our customers."