by Joe Bollig
EMPORIA — Just before Father Brandon Farrar celebrated Mass for Sacred Heart School students here in late September, he asked them questions about his vestments.
“What color am I wearing?” he said.
“Red! Red!” they eagerly replied.
“Now, why am I wearing red?” asked Father Farrar.
An eager second-grader called out.
“It’s the feast of the Mexican Supper!” he said.
The child’s confusion is understandable. Second only in importance to Christmas and Easter at Sacred Heart Church in Emporia is the school’s annual PTO fundraiser, the annual Mexican Supper.
It’s a big, all-hands-on-deck event — with a long and storied tradition. Not only is it the PTO’s largest fundraiser; it’s the parish’s biggest social event. This year, the 45-year-old Mexican Supper was held on Sept. 28.
“The parish completely embraces it,” said Joan Dold, the current overall event chairperson. “They expect it. They enjoy the sit-down time together and the preparation.”
Dold believes the first Mexican Supper was held in 1973 as a way to welcome the Hispanic families of the just-closed St. Catherine School from across town.
Now, parishioners of all stripes come together to celebrate — laden with their contributions.
“They’ll volunteer extras,” said Dold. “They’ll say, ‘Do you need me to make an extra pie for you?’
“It’s a lot of work but, when you see how much everyone supports it, you feel God’s grace flowing.”
A well-oiled machine
The star of the Mexican Supper is the fried taco. In 1973, volunteers fried perhaps 200 or 300 tacos. This year, they fried nearly 3,000 and grossed $24,843. Last year’s profit was about $19,000.
Of course, there is more to it than tacos. The $8 a plate (presale) dinners consist of two tacos, Mexican rice, chips with homemade salsa, dessert and a drink. The day of the supper, unfried tacos are sold by the box for home consumption.
And even though the tables in the parish hall were filled with diners, carryouts accounted for more than half the meals served.
Pulling off an event like this requires at least four things: volunteers, organization, experience and leadership.
For the past seven years, Joan Dold, who is also the parish director of faith formation for children, has chaired the event.
But she has a lot of help.
In addition to two co-chairpersons, she has 22 chairpersons for various jobs: promotions, ticket processing, desserts, drinks, taco frying and so on.
There’s even a salsa chairperson. That might sound silly, but this chair is responsible for producing 115 gallons of fresh, homemade salsa and making sure there’s enough for the dining tables and the carryout meals.
A Mexican Supper without salsa? Unthinkable!
If Joan Dold is the “queen” of the Mexican Supper, she has a “spreadsheet king.” That would be her husband Dan.
“He keeps us all sane,” said Joan. “You can’t be a chairperson without a husband standing beside you.”
Dan is the man with the numbers. He has recorded a decade’s worth of data about tickets sold, how many tacos were fried, how many meals were dine-in or carryout, what kind of supplies and amounts were used, and more.
“It really helps us to not get so panicky about whether or not we’ll have enough food,” said Joan.
“I knew how much salsa to cup up ahead of time,” she said, “so we weren’t dumping out salsa cups into carafes on tables, and we weren’t stealing from carafes on the tables to satisfy our carryout customers.
“Last year, Dan told me the number of carryout salsa cups we needed was within 30 of what we sent out the door — and it was more than 1,400.”
It’s the final countdown
Planning the Mexican Supper takes almost a year. Strangely enough, it starts with the high school football schedule.
“We don’t want to schedule the supper during homecoming,” said Dold. Once homecoming is set, planners schedule it for a late weekend of September.
The various chairpersons are appointed before school dismisses for summer. Tickets are issued to students during the summer, and the first sales are ready to turn in the first week of school.
Students are encouraged to sell by earning weekly prizes, and a lock-in party is held. There is a big award ceremony — The Pepper Rally — the day before the meal.
In the past, tacos were fried at homes and other places all over town and brought to the school.
These days, all the tacos are fried and unpinned in the school kitchen. The parish hall kitchen is used for preparation and assembly. Desserts are cut and boxed or placed in trays in a room off the main part of the parish hall.
The PTO even has an arrangement to steam the rice at Emporia State University the morning of the Mexican Supper.
On the week of the Mexican Supper, the pace of preparation intensifies. Come Tuesday night, volunteers cook 700 pounds of taco meat. On Wednesday, they pin the tacos and make salsa. (Last year, volunteers pinned 6,421 tacos in slightly more than three hours.)On Thursday, they brew tea and decorate the parish hall. On Friday, they cut desserts and fry and unpin the tacos.
At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, the doors opened and people came pouring in. Most were from Emporia or its environs, but others came from as far as Clay Center. Principal Darby O’Neill led the opening meal prayer and then the lines began to move forward.
The food assembly line sped them through like a well-oiled machine.
“It’s going great,” said Matt Sheeley, the rice chairperson. “Everything seems to be going easier and faster than normal — everything’s going smooth.”
Besides the post-supper takedown, cleaning, counting the money and filling out the spreadsheet, only one thing remained yet to be done: prepare for the next one.
¡Viva Mexican Supper!