HYANNIS — Pancake breakfast? Fried chicken dinner? Please. This is Cape Cod. And the church ladies here know that the way to mankind’s soul is with lobster.
As much a sign of summer as shark sightings at Nauset Beach are lobster roll lunches and dinners in church social halls from West Yarmouth to Chatham. For the last 57 years, the women (and a few men) of Federated Church here have hosted a lobster-roll lunch every Friday from late June through early September to crowds that often outnumber those at Sunday services. “We have a lot of anticipation for it,” says Geri Brown, 73. Diners begin calling the church for a schedule at the first sign of spring.
It takes a congregation to raise such an affair (also on offer is chicken Caesar salad, egg salad sandwiches, and hot dogs). Federated’s first community lunch of the season was held June 24, and for a week, longtime congregants shopped, ordered, and baked. Peggy MacLeod, 90, and visually impaired, has the job of calling more than two dozen women weekly to ask them to bake a cake or pastries, the much-desired side that accompanies the lobster roll plate, along with a bag of Cape Cod potato chips, pickles, and a beverage, all for $13. “Before that, I chopped celery,” says MacLeod. “Then I graduated to desserts. It’s more desirable than chopping and talking to yourself.”
Many of the 20 volunteers have been at it since 9 a.m. when Betsy Hendricks, 76, sets the tables with blue checked plastic tablecloths and vases filled with flowers from her home. Chopping now falls in the capable hands of Lee DeLong, 82, who is also responsible for boiling and shelling eggs for the salad. The rest of the knife work belongs to Brown, who co-chairs the lunches with Hendricks. The day before the June luncheon, the pair sit at a table in the social hall beneath a needlepoint depicting a lobster, chopping lettuce for the Caesar, and cutting lemons for iced tea. Back in the kitchen, Chris Werner, 76, and Jan Cliggott, 78, cut 16 pounds of lobster meat, purchased already cooked from the Lobster Trap in Bourne, into bite-size pieces. “We cut good chunks so people are happy it’s not so small,” says Werner, who lives in Centerville.
The Bourne fish market charges market price, and Hendricks estimates the church makes $8 to $9 profit on each roll. Money from the sales goes into the church’s general fund.
As the women fill their first bowl with meat and start on a second, they chat about town news, including praise for the reverend’s sermon on adoption and a reported video of an early-season sighting of a shark in Cape Cod Bay. “How’d you like the story?” Werner asks.
The next morning, the retired secretary returns to the kitchen to prepare the lobster salad, mixing “a couple handfuls of celery” and two to three large spoonfuls of Hellman’s mayonnaise into a large bowl with an estimated 14 pounds of chopped meat. “I do it by eye,” says Werner. “It’s very simple. You don’t want it too mayonnaise-y.”
Werner sizes up the finished product without tasting it — “I just don’t like it,” she admits — and starts to fill top-loading hot dog rolls (Wellesley Farms brand from BJ’s) with the salad. “We’re off to a good start. The roll breaks,” she says, tossing the first roll into the trash. “They’re too fresh. I knew this would happen.”
Down the hall, Dorothea Bass, 95, of Hyannis, and Jean Jackson, 84, of Yarmouth Port, assemble takeout orders. “I used to clean and scrape the lobster. Now I’m down to this,” says Bass. Jackson, a member of the Cape Cod Scrabble Club, parcels pickles from bulk jars of Vlasic Bread & Butter Chips, also from BJ’s, into individual plastic cups behind a sign she made from game tiles that spells “Take Out.” “That was a good jar,” she says. “Sometimes you get little mongrel things, end pieces nobody wants.”
Lunch starts at 11:30 a.m. Jackson has packed dozens of containers and Werner has filled 58 rolls (they’ll yield a little more than $750 in sales). Kristy Kerins, the church organist, dressed in a homemade lobster print dress, begins to play “Old Cape Cod,” then Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” as the first customers, a mix of tourists, locals, and congregants, arrive.
Among them are Ed McKenna, 25, and Nicole LaLiberte, 26, on their lunch break from jobs at Savant Systems in Hyannis, and Sheila Scudder, 58, with daughters Jessie, 31, and Chelsea, 26. “I live in Denver now,” says Chelsea. “I’ve got to eat all the seafood I can.”
By 12:30, every lobster roll has been sold, a surprise, says Hendricks, given that the first lunch of the season is usually slow. The women think the price is a draw. “We try to be competitive with other churches and civic groups. We want to make a profit obviously, but we don’t want to be greedy in the price,” she says.
Starting July 11 Federated will repeat the meal at dinner as a precursor to 8 p.m. performances by The Hyannis Sound at the church. Brown thinks the lobster roll, coupled with the male a cappella group, may require a larger order of lobster meat.
“Summer has officially started,” she says.