[Episcopal News Service] During the season of Lent, some churches serve up fish fry dinners while others gather for fellowship around soup. At Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, Lenten cuisine has been all about the waffles for nearly a century.
The Waffle Shop at Calvary is open for lunch every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday through March 31, serving up Southern specialties like fish pudding, chicken hash, tomato aspic and shrimp mousse along with the shop’s namesake waffles. With in-person dining offered in the church’s Mural Room, the fundraising ministry coincides with the church’s renowned Lenten Preaching Series, which celebrates its 100th year this Lent.
“It’s just a group effort, and everybody who comes down here has that feeling,” Connie Marshall, the ministry’s coordinator and a 20-year volunteer, told Episcopal News Service. “It’s just special. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a lot of fun too.”
The Waffle Shop is powered by eight paid workers and hundreds of volunteers over its six weeks, some of whom arrive as early as 6 a.m. to open the kitchen and begin preparing the meal.
“The Waffle Shop is truly one of the most amazing community service projects in town,” Madge Deacon, a regular volunteer, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “People from all over take time to be part of this each and every year.”
Members of other Memphis churches take turns sending volunteers, and proceeds from the Waffle Shop’s sales are distributed among participating churches to support community outreach efforts in the city, such as a homeless shelter called Room in the Inn.
The annual tradition of waffle lunches began in 1928 as a local variation on the familiar Shrove Tuesday pancake dinners that congregations across The Episcopal Church host every year.
A history of the congregation credits Calvary member Mamie Walworth Tate with the idea. She was visiting friends in Springfield, Ohio, and attended their pancake dinner, which inspired her to try organizing something similar back home. She and other women at Calvary developed a plan to offer Lenten lunches, which grew into today’s Waffle Shop.
The Lenten Preaching Series has been a Calvary tradition even longer and regularly brings big-name guests to speak in the church’s nave while lunch is being served downstairs. Historian Jon Meacham spoke Feb. 22 on Ash Wednesday for the kickoff of this year’s series, and others this season will include the Rev. Winne Varghese, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia; Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel in Memphis; poet Pádraig Ó Tuama and the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, a bestselling author.
Some Waffle Shop guests come early for lunch so they can head up to listen to the day’s preacher at 12:05 p.m., or they come to hear the preacher and go down for lunch afterward, Marshall said.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry congratulated Calvary on its preaching series’ centennial in a video message released this month. “We give God thanks for those 100 years and pray God’s blessing on the years that are to come,” Curry said.
On the Waffle Shop’s menu, some recipes go back many years. In addition to the waffles, one of the most popular dishes is the fish pudding, which the Commercial Appeal’s food writer describes as “a classic Southern casserole made with flaky white fish and topped with a buttery crispy cracker crust.” It’s only available on Fridays.
Most of the meals are made from scratch, down to the mayonnaise. The Commercial Appeal notes that volunteers produce about 30 gallons of mayonnaise each week, or 180 over the meals’ six-week run.
Such volume of food isn’t surprising considering that about 330 people came to eat on Feb. 24, the first Friday that the Waffle Shop was open for this Lent, and that turnout was somewhat lower than normal. Some meals draw up to 700 people into the church, Marshall told ENS.
“It can be quite busy. It’s nice, a lot of chattering,” Marshall said. She described it as “like a little restaurant” – but with a big impact.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.