While I’ve attempted to visit as many independently owned restaurants across the state as possible through the years — especially those in rural areas — one thing I’ve not done is take in most of the historic annual events that are associated with Catholic parishes.
Though there’s not a large Catholic population in Arkansas, these are among the most storied and anticipated events in our state.
In fact, the annual supper at St. Joseph Church in Center Ridge bills itself as “the original spaghetti supper.”
In 1929 — the year the Great Depression began — Benedictine nuns were looking for a way to raise money for school supplies. They wound up raising $40 by selling pasta suppers for 25 cents per plate. That cost included homemade wine, by the way. The homemade wine is a thing of the past, but there’s still homemade Italian sausage and spaghetti produced for a March supper and a June summer picnic.
“It’s not only the taste of the food,” Theresa Paladino told the Arkansas Catholic in 2013. “It’s the hospitality, the friendliness and the heritage of fourth and fifth generations that makes it the best. We don’t have a set sauce recipe. Everybody just brings their own and dumps it in the pot. I’ve seen years when it rained, and people in line stood there and got rained on. One year the transformers blew, and people ate in the dark. People have sat in their cars to eat. Before we were on city water, the wells almost ran dry because we boiled so much pasta. But the Lord always made sure we had enough.”
Parishioners start making the sausages in January. It’s a family tradition for those in the area, which was settled decades ago by Italian Catholics. The two dinners combine to serve more than 3,000 people each year.
Up in northwest Arkansas, St. Joseph Church at Tontitown serves an estimated 7,000 plates of spaghetti during the Grape Festival each August. The event began in 1898 when Italian immigrant farmers — who had left behind the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village — decided to have a picnic. Now, fried chicken and pasta are served from Thursday through Saturday. The pasta and sauce are homemade.
Ryan Pianalto, a fourth-generation member of the church, described it best a couple of years ago when he said: “It’s just the best thing ever. You would trade your birthday for the Grape Festival in a minute. … It’s fantastic to use these old recipes. It’s also amazing to hear my great-aunts and uncles talk about how they made it in these five-gallon pots where they would stir it all day long. These days we use a 100-gallon pot.”
Speaking of Lake Village and its Italian heritage, the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti supper began in 1909. The recipes for the March event have been handed down since then. More than 300 pounds of pasta are produced on the weekend before Washington’s Birthday is celebrated in February. In late February, about 3,600 meatballs are made. Diners have been known to line up by 7 a.m. the day of the event for takeout orders.
You know a place named Little Italy must have a Catholic church and an annual supper. And that’s just the case for St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Little Italy community near Roland, where almost 1,000 diners buy tickets for homemade pasta, sauce and sausages each October. The sausages are cooked in wine, and the salad dressing comes from a recipe that’s a century old. The event, which began in 1927, is almost like a homecoming with people who grew up in the parish coming from multiple states to eat and visit with friends.
The spaghetti dinner at St. Joseph Church in Pine Bluff, which is held each October, dates back to 1934. The meatball recipe has never changed. Almost 11,000 meatballs are produced each year. The work starts weeks in advance.
A Christmas season tradition in Little Rock is the Mancini Sausage Supper. I had the honor of being the main speaker for the event several years ago. My pay was five pounds of sausages. The supper began at St. Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. Members of the Knights of Columbus would give the orphans presents, and the children would sing Christmas carols. Sausages were made from Duroc hogs on the St. Joseph grounds, which were descended from Subiaco Abbey litters. The sausage supper now is held at McDonald Hall, which is adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Andrew in downtown Little Rock. Proceeds go to several charities. Those who buy tickets also are asked to bring unwrapped toys.
The event has become so big that Petit Jean Meats at Morrilton now prepares the sausages, though the original recipe is used. More than 300 pounds of sausages are served each year. Another 200 pounds are sold for people to take home. The supper is named for the late Louie Mancini, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus.
It’s not all pasta and sausage at Catholic events across the state. There’s also:
— Polish fare at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Marche neighborhood of North Little Rock. The annual Polish Karnawal Festival in September attracts more than 1,000 people for gokie (patties of beef and pork), butter potatoes, haluski (braised sweet cabbage, onions and butter) and dumplings. There’s homemade sauerkraut that has been pickled in brine for six weeks and homemade Polish sausages.
— Latino and Vietnamese food at the St. Vincent de Paul Church Festival each September in Rogers. There are 15 food stands offering everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to handmade tamales as this ethnically diverse parish celebrates the start of fall.
— Boston butts, pork loin and barbecued chicken each October for the festival at Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro. Demand for the Boston butts (pork shoulder) is so high that people begin ordering them months in advance. About 800 butts are sold for people to take home.
— Rolls and tamales at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith for the church bazaar on the first weekend in November. The yeast rolls have been made each year since 1970. They’re known as “featherbed rolls.” The tamales, also available at the cultural festival each September at the church, are made from scratch by 60 volunteers.
— No article on food at Catholic events would be complete without mentioning the hot sauce and peanut brittle produced at Subiaco Abbey. There are 600 habanero pepper plants on the grounds. The plants produce 1,500 pounds of peppers, and those are turned into 2,500 five-ounce bottles of sauce. Both red and green peppers are grown. The peanut brittle, meanwhile, is produced in small skillets.
“Somebody once asked me why we didn’t make a mild habanero sauce, and I said: ‘For what?'” Father Richard Walz told the Arkansas Catholic in 2013. “Some of the commercial sauces out there are very, very thin. If you held it up, you could read a newspaper through it. We’re not afraid of someone stealing our recipe because we use way more peppers than most places would think was profitable. And a bag of most peanut brittles is the best advertisement for ours because you see a lot of candy and maybe a peanut here and there. We use more peanuts than any other brittle I’ve ever seen.”