CHATHAM – It’s tradition. After watching the Chatham Fourth of July Independence Day parade, locals and visitors alike line up for strawberry shortcake at the First United Methodist Church of Chatham.
It’s been that way for 27 years.
According to church finance chairman Art Clough, who at age 87 has been here since the festival started almost three decades ago, the Strawberry Festival, as the church calls it, brings on average about 750 people through the church hall doors for some after-parade sustenance.
(See Cape Cod Wave’s slideshow of the 2015 Chatham Fourth of July Independence Day Parade.)
Clough recalled the first year. “It was busy. We had all the strawberries we could handle,” he said.
He said the event has always been popular.
“It’s probably the main attraction on Main Street when the parade ends,” he said. “I make them save me one. It’s delicious.”
Deborah Holt, a retired pastor, took on the title of Strawberry Festival Coordinator this year, taking over from the longtime coordinators Ken and Marilyn Johnson, who had company for the holiday and could not take on the job this year.
Holt said the price on the shortcake went up one dollar this year to $6, but with a sandwich and a drink, it is still an affordable lunch.
The church’s pastor, The Reverend Nancy Bischoff, said the money raised from the Strawberry Festival, a net profit of about $3,100 according to Clough, goes to fund the general ministry of the church. A percentage of the fund, about $25,000 annually, goes toward mission and outreach work internationally, across the country and especially locally.
Among the local groups the church gives funding to are CHAMP Homes, which provides affordable housing and other services; the Chatham Ecumenical Council for Preventing Homelessness; and Monomoy Community Services, which provides family support services to Chatham’s working families.
But the event is not about the money, Bischoff said.
“For us, this event is really about helping the visitors and locals feel welcome on Main Street,” she said.
Holt said she has been a volunteer with the festival for many years, but this is her first year as coordinator.
Over those 27 years, not much has changed, Holt said. “It’s a system that works and we stay with it,” she said.
One thing new this year, in addition to a small price increase, is the acceptance of credit cards to pay for the food.
“It’s an important feature,” Holt said. “So many families don’t carry cash.”
As to the inventory to make the event happen, the Strawberry Festival requires 450 biscuits and an amount of strawberries to match, plus 30 tubs of homemade whipped cream, Holt said.
She explained what brings people back year after year.
“They’re hungry. All these people are here for the parade. They see our signs,” she said.
As to what distinguishes the strawberry shortcake, she took a moment to consider the question.
“It’s the whipped cream,” she said.
That whipped cream is made from scratch, 18 quarts worth using heavy whipping cream, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.
Her goal is to sell out of the shortcake, she said.
As head of the logistics of the event, Holt keeps handy a thick stack of stapled papers that give all the details of the event for reference.
On the day of the parade, the set-up starts early.
The whipped cream-makers arrive at 7:30 in the morning to get the batches going. All the other volunteers arrive at 8 a.m., she said.
Besides the strawberry shortcake, there are hotdogs (196 of them this year) and four kinds of sandwiches: egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad and turkey and cheese. The festival organizers are grateful to Chatham Village Market for providing the sandwich fillings, Holt said.
Volunteers worked to make the sandwiches in assembly line fashion between 8:30 and 9 a.m.
Meanwhile, outside of the parish hall, four of the volunteers stood watching the town come together in advance of the 9:30 start of the 120th edition of Chatham’s Independence Day Parade.
One of those volunteers was Dennis Marquis. Marquis said that while he doesn’t have much of a role with the strawberry festival, he has an important job for the church’s lobster roll suppers, which take place Friday evenings all summer long.
“I’m the bun master,” he said, proudly.
It’s a big job. “There are no lobster rolls without the rolls,” he pointed out.
Another of the men, Allen Brier, describes his role when it comes to the Strawberry Festival as “gofer.” He said he doubles as a “clean-up agent.”
Jim Heatley calls his role: “on call.”
“Any dirty jobs, we give them to him,” Clough, who was also standing outside the church hall, said.
Holt said the 34 volunteers for the festival come in three basic shifts: the set up, the servers and the clean-up crew. Some help with all three tasks.
Among those bustling around in the kitchen just before the start of the parade were a trio of aproned volunteers, Ginger Murray, Janet Heatley and Claire Thompson.
Someone notices a shortage of bread for the sandwiches and a call goes out for someone to run to the market to purchase more bread. The problem is, with thousands of people in town to see the parade that is about to start, this will be no easy errand.
One of the volunteers, Peter Avellar, offers to get the bread, much to the relief of all.
Avellar said his family members were among those who decades ago started the clam chowder fundraiser on Friday nights in the summer. Now known as the Lobster Roll Supper it is the church’s biggest fundraiser. (See Cape Cod Wave’s story about the Lobster Roll Supper.)
Avellar said his mother, Norma, has been heavily involved in church fundraisers for 37 years.
Holt said people might be surprised to learn how many volunteers it takes to pull off the Strawberry Festival.
Just before the parade started, Cape Cod Wave visited the parade judging table to see how the parade’s judges rated the strawberry shortcake.
Parade judge Nancy Erskine was enthusiastic. “What’s not to like?” she said, adding that she goes to get a serving of strawberry shortcake every year after the parade.
But judge Bob Denn has another tradition after the parade. “I’m going to the Red Nun and have a beer,” he said.
A small and informal survey of two young people at the viewing stand indicates there may be a generational lapse in knowledge about the Strawberry Festival.
The third judge, Jessica Wilson, 18, of Harwich is the valedictorian from the 2015 graduating class at Monomoy Regional High School. She did not know about the festival, located in the church just behind the judge’s stand. But she seemed curious to know more.
Parade Committee member Nicole Gullotti, who is 22 and a recent graduate of University of Massachusetts at Amherst, also did not know about the Strawberry Festival.
But longtime Chatham Fourth of July parade-goer Dr. Kurt Clayman of Gardner, who said he has attended the parade for about 15 years, spoke enthusiastically about the strawberry shortcake.
“That’s a tradition. It’s fresh and it’s original and it’s native and it tastes good,” he said.
An hour and a half later, just as the parade is reaching its end, the line has begun to form for the Strawberry Festival.
Collin Maloney, 14, an annual Chatham visitor was first to get his strawberry shortcake and he carried a tray of three of the desserts for his family. His father said, Collin was adamant that they get in line early for the treat.
Celeste Howe, who said she has been coming to the parade for 40 years, was another enthusiastic customer.
“It is delectable. The whipped cream is always fresh. The cake is just the right texture to absorb all the juices and the strawberries are just the right sweetness. Altogether, it’s the perfect strawberry shortcake,” she said.
Many years, the line for the strawberry shortcake winds down the church driveway to Cross Street and around the corner to Main Street, all the way to the Puritan clothing shop west of the church lawn, according to Holt.
By all accounts, the strawberry shortcake enthusiasts stand in line patiently.
“We do a pretty good job of moving them quick,” Holt said.
Holt takes her place in the assembly line to prepare the strawberry shortcakes, taking a plate with a biscuit, ladling on the strawberries and topping it with a dollop of whipped cream.
It’s a substantial dessert and Holt said the dessert is ample enough that many people share one cake between two people.
While the Strawberry Festival takes place around behind the church in the parish hall, the church itself is a landmark on Main Street.
It stands tall in a regal white-washed 1849 building on a grassy bluff on the corner of Cross Street and Main Street. The four-square steeple with its clock face on every side seems to touch the sky.
Like many of Chatham’s churches, it was founded early in the town’s history. Bischoff said the church was established in 1799. “The town couldn’t incorporate until they hired a minister,” she said.
Serving as a greeter at the Strawberry Festival, Bischoff said she often hears people say, “I’ve been coming to this for 20 years. I wouldn’t miss it!.”
On the other hand, there are people from out of town who have no idea what strawberry shortcake is. “We use visuals,” Bischoff said of how she explains the dessert.
Because there are so many visitors from around the globe who end up coming to the Strawberry Festival, the church has taken to keeping track of where they all come from. A poster stands at the entrance to the church hall so people can record their place of origin.
No matter where they are from, people are in good spirits, Bischoff said.
“It’s a fun crowd. Everybody’s in such a festive mood,” she said.
As to whether she enjoys one of the tasty cakes every year, Bischoff responded, “If there are any left.” Otherwise, she said, “It’s family hold back.”
– Laura M. Reckford