On kids’ night, camaraderie, and crabs and spaghetti
Last Friday, I engaged in one of my favorite annual traditions: visiting the Never There Gun Club for their crabs and spaghetti dinner.
Never There holds two such dinners each year—the second is on the Friday before Election Day—but, for my money, their Good Friday dinner is the one that I absolutely cannot miss.
I have been enjoying this dinner for as long as I can remember.
My grandfather was one of the club’s founders, and my father has been a member since he was a teenager. I myself am not a member, chiefly because I don’t hunt. (I have gleefully helped my father build tree stands and bring bait into the woods, then hang, skin and butcher the meat, but my vision is laughably poor so I’ve never owned firearms.)
Even though I’m not a member, I did grow up in and around the club—and one of the best parts of the year was Deer Week, the first full week of December. During that week, my dad ate dinner at the club each night—which largely meant we ate foods he didn’t like—but Wednesday and Saturday were kids’ nights at the club, so my sisters and I could go with him.
During those nights, we—or, at least I—felt like part of the gang.
Throughout its history, Never There’s roster has read like a veritable Who’s Who of Hammonton families: Wuillermin, Sacco, Clark, Franchetti, Fognano, Mento, Berenato (at least two Anthonys and almost half a dozen Joes, at one point) and more.
I didn’t realize it at the time—who could?—but growing up around those guys helped shape my perceptions of my family, my culture and my town, and have given me some of my fondest memories.
We looked forward to seeing the other kids who went each year. We’d play together—sometimes tag, sometimes blackjack (Danny Sacco, I’m looking at you)—or we’d sidle up to the bar and feel like big shots as we poured sodas for one another.
Once, when I was very young, club member Frankie Puzzutiello convinced the other kids there that I could read minds.
Frankie had me step outside, and he and the children picked out a random object in the club. Each time, they were amazed that I knew precisely what it was.
I’ve never revealed our secret, and I never will.
Then, of course, there was the food; that was a real treat. We all looked forward to mounds of rigatoni, piles of deer cutlets and more blocks of Neapolitan ice cream than we could handle.
Food might be what I most associate with the Never There Gun Club. I have had a lot of good food all around the world, particularly tomato sauce, but there’s a certain quality that comes from a bunch of Italian guys in a kitchen putting their heart and soul in preparing a meal, and that quality still shines through during the crabs and spaghetti dinner.
It’s always delicious, though the taste has varied through the years depending on who was in the kitchen. You could always tell that my grandfather had his hand in the gravy, for instance, if it had an exceeding amount of red pepper; that man liked his spice.
One guy in particular kept the quality high for as long as he was involved: Johnny Mento.
I didn’t know Johnny well, even though I knew him from when I was a child, but I knew this: besides being an all-around nice guy, Johnny could cook. Good Lord, could that man cook. If Johnny was in the kitchen, you knew the crabs and spaghetti was going to be nothing short of excellent.
The club lost Johnny recently, the latest in a long line of members who are no longer with us—men who helped shape the club and its culture, and, by extension, me.
I learned a lot from that culture. I learned respect for firearms (and how to shoot them, when my vision wasn’t as bad) and respect for others. I’ve learned about friendship and camaraderie. I’ve learned about gossip and sarcasm—and I’ve learned how to break stones with some of the greatest who ever lived in Hammonton.
Each year when I go to the dinner, all of these things—and more—come flooding back. Never There Gun Club is an important part of my life, and I—along with all of the children who grew up there—am a part of its history (and you can still see my bespectacled mug in some of the pictures that hang on its walls).
As good as the food is each year, the memories are an equally vital part—and are almost as good.
Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.