Eels returning to Sao Paio Feast

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From left, Albino Gomes, Tony Correira, John Rodrigues and John Chipelo prepare eels Aug. 18 at the Naugatuck Portuguese Club for the Sao Paio Feast in Naugatuck. The feast runs Sept. 1 through Sept. 3. -LARAINE WESCHLER/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — John Rodrigues watched appreciatively as 600 pounds of lithe, slimy bodies wriggled out of Bill Clayton’s truck and into waiting barrels last Friday at the Naugatuck Portuguese Club.

After a two-year hiatus, the eels will be back at Clube Uniao Portuguesa’s 66th annual Sao Paio Feast.

“Sao Paio without eels is no festival,” John Rodrigues said.

The feast runs from Sept. 1 through Sept. 3 at the club, 110 Rubber Ave.

Organizers are expecting 10,000 people to dig in to the marinated eels, cavacas cookies, fried dough, hot dogs, burgers, Portuguese sweet bread, barbecue chicken, sardines, clams, crabs, lobster and other delicacies.

The festivities start with the naming of the Portuguese Mayor of the Day at 10 a.m. on Sept. 1 at Town Hall. At 6 p.m. the club will start serving food. Live music by Luis Neves Show will play from 7 to 11 p.m.

The absence of eels hurt attendance at the festival the past two years, according to club Vice President Arthur Fernandes.

“There have been years where we’ll run out on Saturday,” he said.

This year’s batch of eels comes from the Misty Tango, a boat that fishes out of the Chesapeake Bay, Clayton said. He raises eels on a fish farm at Marine Bait Wholesale in Middletown, but he said there’s not much market for them in Connecticut. He sells bait eels from Massachusetts to Mississippi, but the wild caught ones, which are around 5 years old, are bigger.

Once the eels are gutted and cleaned, they get fried and marinated in a ceviche sauce for four or more days, Armando Rodrigues said.

Jill Clayton, 7, watches as Bill Clayton dumps eels from a bucket Aug. 18 at the Naugatuck Portuguese Club on Rubber Avenue. -LARAINE WESCHLER/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

The Sao Paio festival originated in Torreira, Portugal, said John Rodrigues, who moved to Connecticut from that town when he was 13. The festival honors a saint who built a chapel there after nearly drowning in the Atlantic Ocean.

The 43rd annual Sao Paio 5K road race starts off the second day of the feast at 9 a.m. from the club on Rubber Avenue. Race day registration is open from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. and costs $30. Students and walkers pay $15 for a race that starts at 9:15 and a 10 a.m. kids fun run for those 12 and under is $5. Proceeds from the race benefit the United Way of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls. For more information about the race, call Luci DaSilva at 203-729-9621 or James Goggin at 203-996-6675.

At 5 p.m. Sept. 2 children will compete in a traditional Portuguese folk dress contest. Recordacoes de Portugal out of Bridgeport will demonstrate a traditional dance at 6 p.m., and live music starts up again at 9 p.m.

The celebration continues on the final day of the feast with an 11:30 a.m. mass at Our Lady of Fatima on Baldwin Street in Waterbury. At noon, a lunch of almoco de dobrada or tripe and beans will be sold at the club. Live music by Tropical Duo starts at 6 p.m.