Who knew so many people with stomachs so full could dance so vigorously?
The scene was summer's unofficial kick off party, the annual Taste of the Vineyard. Bare feet dodged spiked heels from above, and smashed shrimp below, bravely and sometimes comically bouncing to the blaring beats of Jerry Bennett and the Sultans of Swing. The bass player, slipping in a quick cigarette between sets on Thursday evening, said band members love this gig - and not just because they get to eat, too. The crowd, he explained, is well fed and watered (in fact, he did not use the word watered). "Everyone is always outrageously happy," he said.
None happier, perhaps, than the staff of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which saw its 21st Taste, as it has come to be known, sell out once again.
The Taste of the Vineyard Gourmet Stroll is the first event in a two-party weekend aimed at raising funds for the private nonprofit trust which owns and manages what it calls endangered landmarks on the Island, including Alley's General Store in West Tisbury, the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs, and the Mayhew Schoolhouse in Vineyard Haven. The second event, held on Saturday, was a patron's party and auction. Together the weekend parties netted about $150,000, or about 20 per cent of the trust's annual budget.
Auctioneer Clarence (Trip) Barnes 3rd did not disappoint the crowd. "Hysterical, unpredictable, irreverent - all over the place," reported the trust's executive director Chris Scott as he recovered yesterday. Thirty items sold in the silent auction, while in the live auction Mr. Barnes eked out $10,500 for a Ray Ellis original, $5,600 for a hand-carved eagle by Joseph Uranker and $7,000 for a week on a sailboat in the Caribbean from some of the 250 people who enjoyed cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and a sit-down dinner catered by V. Jaime Hamlin. The auction tally hit $95,000.
"It's very good," said Mr. Scott, who noted that the auction this year was on a par with previous years but did not have a mega ticket item like the Trip Barnes trip which last year raised $40,000 alone.
The stroll was, always, on the lawns of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, another trust property. It was less a stroll than a squeeze as 75 providers and 650 gourmands met across white-skirted tables in a maze that wended around under three super-sized marquees. Guards were on hand for gatecrashers, but practically the entire Edgartown police department attended. "It would've been a good night to rob a bank," laughed Mr. Scott.
Shortly after the tent flaps opened at 6:30 p.m., when Mr. Scott and his army of volunteers began welcoming guests with sparkling wine, whispers began to travel through the tasters.
"Have you tried the lobster crepes?" l'étoile was making them in the tent farthest from the entry; those who heard too late - including the busy Mr. Scott - missed out. He did snag some baby calamari stuffed with crabmeat over at Détente, another dish that was hot with gossips. Lola's jambalaya was as popular as ever, and tasters also got backed up near the Harbor View Hotel's Coach House table.
Tea Lane caterers donned 1970s garb to serve up shrimp fondue, while the boys from the Caribbean noshery Cornerway shook their funny hats, dancing as they dished out goat and chicken choices. Over at Alchemy, the spectacle of a smoked pig on spit drew foodies to the fajitas.
"The wine table near the dance floor has the best sav blanc ever!" came another whisper. The sauvingnon blanc was from a New Zealand winery called Cloudy Bay. As word got around, the hosts at Edgartown's Great Harbour Gourmet and Spirits Co. were emptying bottles and suggesting the label's equally memorable pinot noir.
"I can't keep up with what's best," offered one taster, dribbling remoulade onto the improbably elegant plastic trays, conveniently cut with a slot for a wine glass. "I forget what I had two tables ago, except that it was delicious, too."
A seasoned taster said he had given up any strategy for getting to the best savory and sweet delicacies. "I just grab a beer and hang out at the oyster table," he shrugged. A sensible option, maybe (especially with a growing number of breweries represented at the Taste), but not a popular one; taster traffic did occasionally jam like a bad day at the blinker, but rarely at the same tablecloth twice.
As the traffic eventually slowed among the edibles, it picked up under the disco ball. Balding men and graying women in linen suits splashed as they sashayed, glasses raised, shouting to no one in particular "Voulez-vous couchez, avec-moi, ce soir?" backing the band's three superb women singers. Dancers who may not have been alive in 1975 when the Labelle first sang "mmm hmmm, gitchi gitchi ya ya da da" were right there with them, generations united by a catchy lyric and a few libations. The five-piece horn section was rocking, with Jerry Bennett himself keeping time for the drum kit behind.
The crowd grew around Espresso Love, its booth strategically placed near the dance floor. Barristas boogied, packing iced coffees for the over-full who nevertheless wanted to keep going. Mr. Scott said he had already made plans with Tilton Tents and Party Rentals to expand the dance floor next year.
Between songs, some dancers held their stomachs and rolled their eyes, testament to the empty trays caterers carried out at the other end of the tent. Each caterer can bring four servers, who, like the musicians, could taste on their breaks.
The heartier partiers could not be distinguished by age (there were young and old), or style (there were flip-flops and pumps, Pumas and penny loafers) or shimmer (sequins and denim shorts sweated alike). Their common characteristic was stamina, staying out on the flickering lights of the temporary wooden floor despite barely having room to swing their hips, all belting out Springsteen and Rolling Stones songs with Bennett's Sultans. They were tasting it all, and the release of the music seemed sweetest of all.
It's a mainly local event, and many tasters seemed to expect this would be their last big night out before hunkering down to a summer making money. As they finally retired, some wistfully waved off friends saying, "See you in September."
There was a feeling that the party was over just as the summer began.
Pictures by Peter Simon