For Danielle Pappas, volunteer at Grace Church’s weekly summer lobster roll sale, three words best describe the event.
“It’s hectic, hectic, hectic,” she said last Friday, making sure to speak loudly across the small, packed kitchen. The room rang with laughter as 20 or so volunteers, wearing aprons reading “Have you hugged an Episcopalian today?” worked feverishly.
For the past 25 years, the sale has been recreated weekly from May to the last week of September, so the sustained level of energy was a testimony to the participants’ commitment and the founders’ vision in designing the event.
The Grace Church lobster roll phenomenon started in the summer of 1987, when members of the church were trying to find an additional source of revenue. The original idea was a roast beef dinner. Then someone suggested lobster rolls. At their first event the volunteers netted a meager $100, but they were determined.
“It was very, very slow for a long time, but we just kept doing it,” said Lorraine Clark, Island native and the longest-running volunteer in the kitchen. “In the last few years it’s really blossomed.”
While there is no official director in the kitchen, Ms. Clark’s experience qualifies her to be the senior “lobster roll model.”
“I have been here for 103 years,” she joked.
Most of the veteran volunteers who work in the kitchen each week are members of the church. Additional volunteers include coworkers, friends and relatives. Many are families or married couples who have made helping out at the event a tradition. Bebee Green and her husband Carl, the self-proclaimed “lobster man,” have been married for 58 years and have volunteered at the event for 10 of those years. Phyllis Smith’s daughter Karen recently came to visit from California, and suddenly found herself in the church’s kitchen.
On the counter next to Ms. Clark was a small envelope with a few dollar bills sticking out. She explained that each member of the kitchen puts in a dollar and bets on how many lobster rolls will be sold that afternoon. The closest guesser receives the envelope and then promptly donates the prize money back to the church.
“Last week [the week of the Oak Bluffs fireworks], we sold 1,560 rolls in four hours,” she said. Outside of the kitchen there is a chart mapping how many lobster rolls have been sold per week for the last six years. The rolls have been voted best on the Island in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine for six years running.
High quality lobster and a simple recipe are what keep the rolls tasting great. The only ingredients are lobster meat, mayonnaise and white pepper. But, according to Ms. Clark, “we are the only people on the Island who have this lobster meat.”
Each week on Thursday morning at 6 a.m. she and the other core volunteers receive their delivery.
“This week we got 35 cases of lobster meat at 24 pounds a case. We come here and take that 35 cases of meat and debag it, get it nice and fresh, refrigerate it and have it ready for tonight.”
Handling 840 pounds of lobster per week, Ms. Clark and her kitchen are running full speed from 1 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. to manage the event which runs from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Friday during the summer.
“It’s a lot of work, but we really, truly have fun,” she said.
The weekly event raises money for a host of organizations, from local Island nonprofits such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services to broader Ministries and Mission projects of Grace Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Father Rob Hensley, director and pastor of Grace Church, emphasized the importance of other ventures of the church, including Friday night soup suppers in the winter, AA meetings, and pre-school. The church, long active in the community, is known for providing land to Camp Jabberwocky and Havenside Senior Housing.
When asked about the lobster roll event, Father Rob cracked a smile and ventured a reminder, “We’re not just here on Friday nights. We do our best business on Sundays.”