Dennis Zuelke lives in Calhoun County for only part of the year, but he always times his return to coincide with the flight of the lobsters.
Zuelke, a retired education professor, was among about 900 people who showed up at Anniston’s Grace Episcopal Church Saturday to dine on crustaceans flown down from Maine. That’s the heart of the yearly fundraiser known as Lobsterfest.
“I come down from Minnesota every year just to do this,” said Zuelke, who divides his time between the northern plains and a house in Jacksonville. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Volunteers from the church spent a gray morning boiling live lobsters for guests who pay $25 each for a seafood dinner. Proceeds from the dinner go to Habitat for Humanity. Saturday was the 23rd time the church has held the slightly offbeat fundraiser.
Yes, offbeat — because Anniston is 300 miles from any kind of ocean and even farther from the New England coast that is home to Atlantic lobster.
“Other groups do barbecue, so this is unique,” said Katherine Smith, an organizer of the event.
Smith said Grace Episicopal “stole” the idea from another Episcopal church in Huntsville, which had some fundraising success with its event. In early years, she said, volunteers had to educate themselves on how to even cook a lobster. Among other things, they had to swap out burners — fine for frying turkey — that didn’t provide enough heat to evenly boil a lobster.
“There was a learning curve,” she said.
Over the years, Smith said, the event has raised about $200,000 for Habitat, which builds houses for people who couldn’t otherwise afford to be homeowners. Smith said the group shipped in 1,030 lobsters on Friday. Most were already sold to ticket holders, though about 90 were still available for purchase Saturday morning.
That’s a fairly typical turnout, she said, though organizers said they worried a little about the weather. After weeks mostly without rain, Saturday was cool and drizzly. As the doors for the event opened at noon, the bouncy-house outside the church sat wet and kid-less. Inside, people sat around tables eating and watching TV.
Organizers say weather matters a little. Football matters more. The event typically coincides with the Alabama-Tennessee game, something that’s hard to avoid. Fall is when the lobster prices are best, Smith said, but waiting until November to hold the event means risking a too-early sunset and too-cold weather.
This year’s event also competed with Jacksonville State homecoming and an 11 a.m. Auburn game — one reason for the big-screen TV in the parish hall. Still, some guests wouldn’t miss it. Stan Easton of Jacksonville said it’s typically the one time per year he eats lobster.
“I’m not opposed to eating lobster more often,” he said, with a shrug that indicated the opportunity rarely comes up.
Rev. Jim Elliott, Grace’s interim rector, is a good deal more familiar with lobster dinners. Growing up with a father in the Air Force, he spent part of his childhood in Newfoundland, where people sometimes caught their own — or could pick one up at the market for about 45 cents.
Customers Saturday said they felt they were getting a good deal with a $25 lobster dinner. Smith said lobster prices went up sharply this year; the church raised the price of the dinner by only $1. Elliott said he believes people know the money is for a worthy cause.
“They’re here for the food, but I do think Habitat is on their minds,” he said.