Sample and savor: A taste of the Diocese of Little Rock

Josefina Fonseca of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers grills pambazos during the 2012 parish festival. Organizers expect to go through 1,200 of the tasty Mexican sandwiches for the 2013 event.
Josefina Fonseca of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers grills pambazos during the 2012 parish festival. Organizers expect to go through 1,200 of the tasty Mexican sandwiches for the 2013 event.
by Dwain Hebda
Associate Editor

Featherbed Rolls and Tamales

Immaculate Conception Church, Fort Smith

The parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church boast not one, but two delicacies that have people flocking to the parish bazaar and festivals.

The first weekend in November, guests line up at the church bazaar for the Ladies Auxiliary’s famed featherbed yeast rolls. Two works days are dedicated to baking the rolls, which are rolled up like croissants. During each of those days, 96 dozen of twice-raised delicacies emerge piping hot and fragrant from the ovens, just as they have since the ladies first brought parishioner Dorothy Calderera’s recipe to life in 1970.

“We’ve made them for so long,” said Rita Helfrich, 80. “We used to make them along with our own pasta for a spaghetti feed as a fundraiser for the school. Now we help pay for most everything needed at church.”

Mariella Araujo, director of Hispanic ministry, doesn’t remember whose tamale recipe serves as the base for the parish’s other signature food item. But given the ubiquitous nature of the dish in Hispanic culinaria, it can accurately be said that it’s everyone’s.

“Tamales are a main dish in Mexico and many people know how to make them, but some never have,” she said. “And, there are people who are Hispanic but aren’t Mexican who have their own versions. But everybody has been exposed to tamales at home.”

The items are generally only produced in bulk in late spring and  summer although they are also on the menu at the parish’s Sept. 29 cultural festival. For a recent fundraiser supporting the parish capital campaign, volunteers produced 2,000 tamales.

It took 60 volunteers to make that many tamales from scratch. Masa, water, salt and lard combine to form dough and the sauces — salsa verde for chicken, salsa rojo for pork — are prepared from tomatillos and various peppers and spices. Meat, sauce and dough (or, in the case of tamales de rajas, dough, cheese and poblano peppers) are hand-rolled in corn husks and steamed 500 at a time for two hours.

Peanut Brittle and Monk Sauce

Subiaco Abbey

Two products on either end of the taste spectrum — habanero hot sauce and peanut brittle — are earning the monks of Subiaco Abbey a solid reputation in the food world. It’s the epitome of sweet and heat and it’s run by the abbey’s resident foodie Father Richard Walz, OSB.

Father Walz was the one who, during a time living in Belize, developed an appreciation for the various hot sauces that are applied to just about everything there.

The abbey tends about 600 habanero pepper plants first indoors, then when frost danger is past, on one acre of the abbey farm. The plants produce about 1,500 pounds of peppers, which in turn translate to 2,500 five-ounce bottles of sauce. There are two varieties ­— red and green — but only one intensity.

“Somebody once asked me why we didn’t make a mild habanero sauce and I said, ‘For what?” Father Walz said. “Some of the commercial sauces out there are very, very thin. If you held it up you could read a newspaper through it. We’re not afraid of someone stealing our recipe because we use way more peppers than most places would think was profitable.”

The same philosophy carries over to the peanut brittle operation. Looking around at competitors’ products, Father Walz immediately recognized how the monks’ candy would distinguish itself in the marketplace.

“A bag of most peanut brittles is the best advertisement for ours,” he said. “You see a lot of candy and maybe a peanut here and there. We use more peanuts than any other brittle I’ve ever seen.”

More than that, the Subiaco version is fresh and made in small skillets, each yielding less than two of the abbey’s 1.25-pound tins.

“I sometimes wish we had gone into the fruitcake business because they don’t get any worse,” joked Father Walz. “Peanut brittle does not get better with age.”

Both products are available in the Coury House bookstore and online at www.countrymonks.biz.


Knights of Columbus Council 812, Little Rock

Central Arkansas Catholics know the Mancini Sausage Supper to be a Christmas season tradition. And while that’s mostly for the famous sausage, the backstory of the dinner is equally appealing.

The event, scheduled the first Tuesday of December, was originally held at St. Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock, free of charge and for men only. The resident children sang Christmas carols and knights donated Christmas presents for the orphans.

Over the years, the location (now the Cathedral of St. Andrew’s McDonald Hall in Little Rock), the ticket price and the level of women’s participation has changed, but the worthiness of the cause has remained constant. Proceeds go to various charities and each diner is asked to bring an unwrapped toy to be delivered to Little Rock agencies.

Something else that’s stayed the course over the past 86 years is the quality of the food. The pork sausage is specially prepared for Council 812 by Arkansas’ own Petit Jean Meats. As for that recipe; it’s so old, even longtimers disagree on who actually came up with it. The late Louie Mancini, the longtime Knight for whom the event is named, generally gets credit for it, but Donahue said the flavor suggests other influences as well.

“Since Louie’s name is on the dinner, people assume it’s Italian, but I don’t really taste the fennel seed like in Italian varieties,” he said. “It’s savory; it’s not quite an Italian sausage and it’s not quite a German sausage.”

By whatever definition, it’s wildly popular with attendees who consume 300 pounds of it at the dinner, along with sides, dessert and beverage. Another 200 pounds quickly sell out in one- two- and five-pound increments. For those who can’t make the dinner, Council 812 orders an additional 300 pounds of sausage for use throughout the year in its spaghetti dinners and the other fundraising meals the knights cook for various Little Rock parishes.

Boston Butts and Pork Loin

Blessed Sacrament Church, Jonesboro

It’s generally not considered proper parish etiquette to rub butts with your fellow Catholics, unless you happen to attend Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro. There, every autumn, parishioners proudly lay claim to having the best butts in town.

That’s Boston butts, a chunk of port shoulder with a reputation as a good barbecue cut, thanks to high marbling that keeps the meat moist as it cooks over low heat. The Jonesboro parish will pull through about 100 butts’ worth during the parish’s Oct. 5 festival, along with hundreds of barbecue chicken halves.

“Boston butts weren’t that popular 20 years ago and now they’re everywhere,” said Tony Bartels, who heads the project. “We were the first and a lot of people say we do it the best.”

In addition to those cooked for use in sandwiches, the parish will also smoke 800 additional butts to fill pre-orders. Demand is so high that preordering begins a month in advance. And the non-stop smoking creates an aroma that lets the community know festival time has returned.

Polish fare

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, North Little Rock (Marche)

Unique dishes abound at the Polish Karnawal Festival, now in its 23rd year. Mary Pruss, a parishioner who has been involved with the event for years, said the 1,000 or so festival-goers who sit down for dinner Sept. 20 come for the authentic flavors of family recipes.

“It’s hard to point out just one dish that’s the most popular,” she said.

Among the items patrons look forward to is gokie, small patties of beef and pork, which complement the parish’s famed butter potatoes. Diners will consume about 250 pounds of the delicacy during the dinner. Another favorite is haluski, a dish of braised sweet cabbage, onions and butter. The dish is often made with noodles, but the Marche version uses dumplings.

Volunteers will also turn 100 pounds of cabbage into homemade sauerkraut, pickled in brine for six weeks then cooked with bits of pork in time for the festival. It’s a must-try, particularly as a sidecar with the traditional kiolbasa, or Polish sausage, which is custom-made for the festival by Lou Simon, a Catholic and owner of Lou’s Fresh and Smoked Meats in Pottsville.

Pruss said in addition to the favorites that appear year after year, dinner organizers are also tinkering with the menu. One Polish favorite that has only been offered for the past three years is pierogi, small pillows of dough that resemble pot stickers, stuffed with various combinations of meat, potatoes or cheese.

“We’re still working to perfect the pierogis,” Pruss said. “They’re a lot of work.”


St. Vincent de Paul Church, Rogers

Gloria Morse has a hard time concentrating when talking about the food to be had at the annual St. Vincent de Paul Festival, scheduled for Sept. 29. The array of edibles that are produced for the crowd of 3,000 is dizzying.

“We have 15 different food stands,” she said. “It’s mainly Latino food, Salvadoran, Mexican and Nicaraguan, but we also have Vietnamese food, which is really good.”

Morse’s voice starts to flutter when describing some festival-goers’ favorites — handmade tamales, Salvadoran pastelitos and Vietnamese spring rolls ­— and a dish that’s rapidly growing in popularity, the Mexican pambazo.

Pambazo is street food, a sandwich that begins with a particular kind of bread of the same name intentionally baked to be tough and chewy. A chile colorado concoction softens and seasons the bread and stains it a lovely red. From there, a special paste of vinegar, ancho chile and spices is applied, the sandwich is stuffed with beef, pork or veggies and the whole thing is griddled and served warm.

“The pambazo, let me tell you,” said Morse, sounding slightly faint. “Last year we sold 800, this year we’re making 1,200.”

Ice Cream

Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Hot Springs Village

Father Bill Elser, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, has a couple of simple rules when it comes to the homemade ice cream he cranks out by the gallon for guests and parish fundraisers. First, he only produces the frozen dessert for the parish where he is assigned (though he does bend that rule for St. John Church in nearby Hot Springs). Second, he doesn’t partake of the merchandise.

“People ask me how I stay thin when I’m making ice cream all the time,” he said. “What a lot of people don’t know is, I’m lactose intolerant. I’ll have a spoonful when I’m making a new flavor to make sure it tastes right, but otherwise I don’t eat it, I just make it.”

For the past 20 years he has fattened his recipe book and killed off three White Mountain ice cream machines, his preferred make. Along the way he developed some crowd favorites, such as cookies and cream, mocha chip and several Ben-and-Jerry’s-type varieties. He also has developed more obscure concoctions, such as the one that blends Grape Nuts cereal and maple syrup into the mix. He’s even dabbled in frozen yogurt, sherbets and a sugar-free variety.

Limiting where the ice cream is served is simply a matter of logistics. Keeping up with the various events at Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. John requires two machines to stay humming at a rate of five quarts an hour to meet demand.

“Unfortunately, I can’t lend myself out, I’d never have time for anything else,” he said.

Father Elser’s creations will next be on hand at the Sept. 27 Men’s Club Chicken Bake at Sacred Heart of Jesus and at the St. John Bazaar Oct. 25.

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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