Island tradition going strong: The election eve Ham Dinner

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Good food and a great meeting place for Islanders of all ages at the ham dinner the night before Election Day.

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Good food and a great meeting place for Islanders of all ages at the ham dinner the night before Election Day.

If part of your Election Day eve tradition is attending St. Mary’s Episcopal Church’s ham dinner, you may have wondered why and when this Island tradition was born.

The “when” is a difficult research project. A check of back issues of the Reporter don’t list it, but speculation is that it likely started some time about half a century ago. While there had been a number of write-ups in the Reporter about partisan pre-election dinners and other events, St. Mary’s appears to be the first non-partisan group to enter the fray, offering a pre-election night ham dinner.

Linda Holmes remembers the late Al Nelson volunteering to provide the hams; Ms. Holmes thinks it was sometime in the 1960s.

But the “why” was easier to track. Phyllis Wallace, long-time archivist at the Shelter Island Historical Society, said there had once been an effort to encourage summer residents to vote here, but if they had closed their houses for the season and returned to vote, they would find few restaurants open.

“It was a smart move and a money maker,” Ms. Wallace said.

The Reporter asked church member Jane Babinski if the ham dinner is truly an escape from politics. She made no promises about this year, but she did promise a chance to catch up with friends and neighbors in the same spirit that Islanders bring to the summer Fire Department Chicken Barbecue.

Anticipating about 85 people Monday night, church members begin working on Saturday to ensure all is in order. On Saturday, volunteers will begin peeling fresh apples contributed by Wickham’s in Cutchogue. Then after church services Sunday, volunteers be slicing sweet potatoes to go in huge pans with more butter than your doctor might recommend.

Dot Ross will begin connecting her special cole slaw; she shares that recipe with no one. What she will allow is that one red cabbage is used to every three or four green cabbages.

Ms. Babinski gave a shout out to the IGA which  graciously shreds the cabbage for the dinner.

Diners will consume, it’s reported, between 20 to 25 pounds of that special cole slaw and five large, boneless, Boar’s Head hams will be baked and then topped with raisin sauce.

The Pridwin no longer bakes the pies since its ovens are turned off by November, but the hotel arranges for both apple and pumpkin pies that arrive unbaked. They expect that this year, as in the past, ovens at the Center Firehouse will be used, Ms. Babinski said. On Monday night, Danny Calabro will be in charge of organizing the kitchen, she added.

Each table will be adorned with a pumpkin — about 15 in all, donated by Alfred Kilb Jr. — that Judy Brandenstein and Doris Schultz will be carving to serve as centerpieces.

The meal organizers suggest that diners don red, white and/or blue outfits and arrive at St. Mary’s Parish Hall Monday evening for seatings at 5 and 7 p.m.

Be sure to make reservations in advance by calling the church at (631) 749-0770. The meal is $25 for adults and $10 for children. There’s also takeout between 6 and 6:30 p.m.

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