Election Day meal traditions go way back, going strong
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Dinners offered by social clubs or churches on Election Day are a western Pennsylvania tradition that may not be directly related to the celebrations that took place on voting days in New England shortly after the Revolutionary War, but they could be distant cousins.
Election Day for decades in Pennsylvania has been a time for community groups to raise money by cooking up their specialty dish — spaghetti, kielbasa or a host of other offerings — to tap into the traffic of people on their way to the polls.
"We knew people would be out to vote, and it would be a good time to have it," said Valerie Sesler, president of the women's organization at Asbury United Methodist Church in Uniontown, which has been offering Election Day spaghetti dinners to fund mission work for about 40 years.
It's become a tried and true tradition for groups to have their supply ready on a day that demand is likely to be there. That wasn't the role food played just after the Revolutionary War when people were celebrating their right to vote. But whether as fundraiser or part of a festival of freedom, serving food has been a central part of Election Day for hundreds of years.
In New England way back when, it was a yeasty, bread-like baked good filled with fruit and nuts called Election Day cakes that were likely to be the center of attention at gatherings on voting day.
"They would come to the cities to cast their votes and celebrate," said Alice Ross of Smithtown, N.Y., a one-time consultant to Colonial Williamsburg. "It was the one time of the year when people would get together. They would bring the cakes with them from the farms ... and have them along with other foods."
The crowds at those early celebrations — when Election Day was a holiday — were almost guaranteed. Community groups in Western Pennsylvania aren't offered the same luxury.
Greensburg's Trinity United Church of Christ used to feed more than 400 people, far more than the building's basement can hold, during the heyday of Election Day dinners in the 1980s and '90s, said a fundraiser organizer. The church organist would play to entertain those waiting in line.
"We would clear the tables and reset them three or four times," said Jim Stitt, a trustee at the church.
Stitt said in more recent years, he expects between 200 and 300 people a year to take part. The organist has no reason to play anymore because wait times are short. The church is hosting its 62nd Election Day dinner.
The Bullskin Senior Center used to hold four fundraising dinners a year, but about six years ago it eliminated two of them because of dropping attendance, said Mary Rhodes, office coordinator for the center. Now it holds its spaghetti dinner fundraisers twice a year: on Election Day and during the primaries in May.
"When they didn't have as many people coming as they used to, they decided to do it on Election Day," Rhodes said. "They thought a lot of people were out and about that day, so they had a better chance of a lot of people coming out."
Stitt, Sesler, Rhodes and others have theories about why attendance dropped since the late 1990s: Church membership is shrinking, so there are fewer volunteers to help run the events; people have more restaurant choices than ever; voter participation has dropped.
But they say the tradition is stable and going strong.
"We've been pretty steady for the past five or six, maybe even 10 years," Sesler said.
And that's good news, because Election Day meals remain major money-makers for the groups.
"This is really our only fundraiser for the year for us," said Judy Koontz, of the women's group at Community United Presbyterian Church in New Alexandria. Koontz said she expects about 150 people to show up today, about the same number as has attended for the last decade.
The organizers say they take pride in their work and the ability to bring the community together after a trip to the ballot box — a sentiment not unlike when Election Day cakes were all the rage. But you are more likely to be served Election Day pancakes in western Pennsylvania.
"If you want to eat the best pancakes and sausage in town, we serve them," Stitt said.