Story by Mary Reilly, Photography by Elaine Papa
Hadley grass is responsible for one of my springtime traditions: nearly getting rear-ended as I see a farm stand and brake for the first bunch of the season. A more longstanding local asparagus-based tradition is the First Congregational Church of Hadley’s annual Asparagus Supper. Since 1931, the volunteers from the congregation have been dishing up an all-you-can-eat asparagus feast one Saturday a year in May.
The meal’s choreography and menu remain the same from year to year: Hungry diners line up for a family-style dinner (the church offers two seatings), are escorted to their reserved seats, and dig into an endless procession of platters. The menu is simple and satisfying: rolls and butter, baked ham, potato salad, and thick spears of asparagus. Counter to our modern passion for al dente spears, the asparagus at this supper is steamed to tenderness. The mossy-green spears are juicy and addictive and disappear in a flash. Servers buzz through the room, trays heaped with seconds and thirds, so when a platter is scraped clean another materializes to take its place.
The menu highlights local food, from across Hadley and beyond, which streams into the kitchen all day long leading up to service: produce from Szawlowski Potato Farms, biscuits from Barstow’s Longview Farm Bakery, milk from Mapleline Farm, butter from Maple Valley Creamery, ice cream from Flayvors of Cook, and coffee from Esselon.
Last May, I spent the day watching the event come together. One of the first chores the crew tackles is preparing the strawberries for dessert. A group of men, ranging in ages and experiences, mans the sinks. They wash, hull, and cut flat after flat of berries. The room rings with conversation––folks use the time to catch up, tell jokes, and share stories. They are neighbors and church fellows and family, and some have been slicing berries in this kitchen together for generations.
Before long, I’m recruited onto the asparagus-collection crew. We drive a few miles away to Joe Czajkowski’s farm, one of two providing asparagus for the supper (Boisvert Sugar Shack supplies the rest of the asparagus quota). When we arrive, the farm is in full harvest and pack mode. The process goes swiftly: Large totes of asparagus get sorted by size and placed onto a conveyor that leads to a scary-looking device that lops off the bottom-ends of each spear. They’re then banded into bunches and packed gently into wooden crates. Finally, they’re loaded into the van and we head back to the church.
By the time we return, the dinner tables have been set with china, coffee cups, and fresh flowers. I pop into the office and say hello to the team of ladies who manage the reservations. Yes, this is a casual family-style event, but reservations are essential. The table layout is a collection of names and seating assignments. Regular attendees know where they will be sitting, near friends and family, and the thoughtfully engineered floor plan ensures that will happen.
As the clocks ticks closer to the 5:00 seating, the energy in the kitchen starts to rev up. There is ham to slice, potato salad to platter, rolls to warm. The asparagus is loaded into a steamer to begin its transformation into tender morsels.
Diners start to line up by 4:30, waiting eagerly for the doors to open. Each guest is led to their table and the feast begins. People have been coming to this event for decades. I met Betty Pout: She and her family haven’t missed a supper in over 60 years. Melanie and Richard Sitnik, attendees for nearly 50 years, met for the first time over a platter of the church’s asparagus. Today they were dining as three generations, though their grandson Tyler hedged his bets and brought a bag of Cheerios “just in case.”
By 6:00, the first seating is over, and as satisfied diners file out of the church the volunteer crew starts to reset the tables for the 6:30 seating. The pattern repeats: Food comes flying out of the kitchen, diners reminisce and share stories, and the room fills with chatter and laughter.
At the end of the night, I peek into the kitchen and see that group of men, neighbors and church fellows and family, clustered around the sinks again. This time, the basins are filled with dishes instead of strawberries. But stories are still being shared and jokes are still getting told as they wash and put away the platters, until next year.