Enis Merlo-Giovacchini was 10 when she went to her first meeting of the Italian Catholic Federation.
It was 1938.
“There were a lot of Italian people in Sanger, and they were starting to fall away from the church,” Merlo-Giovacchini said. “The club was formed to prevent that.”
The group formulated a fund-raising plan, one that would elevate their congregation at the old St. Mary’s Catholic Church eventually into a new facility. That building no longer exists. The newer Old St. Mary’s at O and Eighth streets replaced it.
Merlo-Giovacchini, 90, said the ICF began the fund-raising dinner — the ICF Dinner — as one of its first projects. “It started in the basement,” she said. “It was a small church, real small. And our dinners were at that time turkey and spaghetti. The women would make all the sauce. Then they’d cook all the turkeys.”
The kids would decorate the tables. “All us young children had to,” she said. “They (the adults) made sure it was done right.”
And the men didn’t just get to eat. They made all the pasta and helped with everything else. That first year, they served about 100 people. “We had a couple of shifts,” Merlo-Giovacchini said.
The ICF Dinner evolved into the St. Patrick’s Dinner near the turn of the century, she said. “Because it was close to St. Patrick’s Day. It was good because we didn’t have many members in the ICF (anymore).”
This year’s dinner is planned from noon to 5 p.m. March 17 at the St. Mary’s hall on the corner of North and Bethel avenues.
Rene Gonzalez, who heads up the 13-member barbecue crew, said his team has purchased about 450 chickens and plans to feed about 900 people. Spaghetti remains on the menu as do the famous Italian-style peas and salad. There is also desert.
Gonzalez has been barbecuing for the past 20 years and has been involved with the dinner for the past 35. He said this year’s meal is the 76th. “The intent was to have a community-type event,” he said. “We stress that we invite the public to be part of it.”
He declared the spaghetti sauce “out of this world.”
“We have a great time,” Gonzalez said. Especially on the barbecue crew. He said he has a surprise for the crew this year, which reportedly includes his son, Frank, the current mayor of Sanger.
“I have green aprons (for the crew) with their names and their roles,” he said. “The first one is the Salt and Pepper Man. That’s all he does. Actually two guys do that. Another is the Probe Man. His job is to check the temperature of the chicken. When it reaches 180 degrees (the rack is removed).”
Work begins at 6 a.m. with a rallying breakfast at Denny’s, then barbecuing starts about 8 a.m. the morning of March 17. The ritual includes a round of Jameson Irish Whiskey and the lighting of the charcoal, which is done by either the new member of the barbecue crew or the youngest.
Gonzalez said the lighting “is an event in itself.”
Merlo-Giovacchini said the event “grew a little bit every year, and the (original) hall got too small.” About 1960, the hall at the North and Bethel property had been built and the operation moved. “At that time, the menu kind of got changed to chicken and spaghetti,” she said.
And the barbecuing was taken care of by the men.
And Merlo-Giovacchini and her crew had to make more sauce as the audience grew. “One Saturday they didn’t have enough sauce. So they called me and my two sisters Nancy and Florence, and we made 15 gallons of sauce,” she said. “They didn’t get as many volunteers as they thought. It took most of the day. My sisters were great.”
And she made a couple gallons of salad dressing. It was Italian. Of course.
Merlo-Giovacchini said about then Rene Gonzalez and his family came in and took over the barbecuing. She said her time with the event is about over. “I think I’m going to retire this year,” she said. “Not that I want to. My health is deteriorating. They say it’s my age, but I don’t want to believe it.”
The ICF still has two or three members working in the kitchen. And Ralph Esquer said about 70 to 80 volunteers help out throughout the day. “The food is excellent,” he said. “It’s all good stuff.”
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