EASTHAM –– Last Friday evening a dozen Elks galloped in and out of the kitchen of Lodge #2572 as they prepared the weekly fish fry. On the other side of the building, in the members’ lounge, groups milled around the bar while a 96-year-old World War II veteran played shuffleboard with a woman 50 years her junior. “They’re friends,” said Lodge Secretary Darlene Brown.
The Eastham-Orleans Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks on McKoy Road has over 500 members. The local Elks are mostly Eastham, Wellfleet, and Orleans residents, many over age 45. Social activities at the lodge double as fundraising events and are open to the public. Last year, the lodge donated over $10,000 to local organizations serving seniors, veterans, and youth.
You don’t have to be an Elk to come to the Friday night fish fry, or to bingo on Tuesday night, or to the meat raffle on Saturday afternoons.
The fish fry is a tradition dating to the 1970s. The cod isn’t local, but the price cannot be beat: $12 buys a big portion of fried fish, a plate of fries, cole slaw, and a roll. Before the pandemic, the fish fry was the place to be — people would pack into the banquet hall and volunteers provided table service. The operation is now takeout only, with customers ordering in advance. Last week’s fish fry sold 93 meals.
Off-season fish frys are not nearly as hectic as those in the summer, when volunteers sometimes prepare 300 meals per night.
Lodge leader Pete DeSandis says good canola oil and a little seltzer in the batter are both important for crunch. But a fried-food operation lives and dies on speed. After a piece of fish leaves the fryer, a volunteer quickly boxes it up and dashes to the front door. Longtime customers know to pick up their orders on time. DeSandis, a career IBM employee, is big on efficiency. He recently installed a new digital system to keep track of orders. They were hand-written for decades, but volunteers have adjusted, taking orders on iPads at the front door.
Most of the volunteers have years of fish fry experience. Jim Dwyer, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, has been volunteering since “the beginning of time,” according to DeSandis. On Friday, he scooped bowl after bowl of clam chowder with casual quickness.
The Elks is an adults-only club, that is, a prospective member must be “a citizen of the United States over the age of 21 who believes in God,” according to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks official website.
The first Elks seem to have assembled in 1868 in New York in search of a workaround for laws that limited public taverns’ hours. Like many such fraternal organizations, the Elks restricted membership to whites only until 1973, and to men only until 1995. Today, “Hate has no place here” and “Black lives matter” are among statements about inclusivity on the Elks website.
Every two months, DeSandis says, about six new members are inducted at an initiation ceremony that brings out the formal side of the organization. DeSandis, whose official title is exalted ruler, dresses for it in a tuxedo, as do the other officers. Barb Spezzafone is second in command, or leading knight.
In spite of the Lodge’s sign on Route 6, Don Rogers, who is both an Elk and a former Eastham postmaster, said, “We don’t toot our own horn.” They might want to make a little more noise, because the lodge has operated at a loss for the past several years.
One person who’s turned up the volume at the Elks Lodge in Eastham is Kevin Rice, managing artistic director of the Payomet Performing Arts Center. Elks and non-Elks alike head to the lodge when Rice produces a concert there. “I like to call it the Elks Music Hall,” he said. Rice has brought the Steep Canyon Rangers, Loudon Wainwright III, the Garcia Project, and others to the lodge.
“It’s relaxed, there’s a bar, there’s dancing in the back,” said Rice. “And if you’re lucky, you can cash in on their meat raffle.”
The meat raffle on Nov. 6 raised $750. The following week was less busy — 30 people showed up in the members’ lounge. Five raffle tickets cost $2, and they can be entered in drawings for any of seven variety packs of meat from Dennis Public Market. Package #1 contained a pork tenderloin, 2 lbs. of boneless chicken breast, 2.5 lbs. of London broil, and 2 lbs. of chuck stew beef. Two winners are chosen during each drawing. The first wins the meat, the second wins a $25 gift card to Mac’s.
The raffle starts at 1 p.m. and lasts about three hours, meaning there’s plenty of time between drawings to hang out in the lounge — a space steeped in lodge history and patriotic décor. Several framed documents, including a copy of the Gettysburg Address, hang under a plaque reading “Americanism.” Keno pull tabs are a popular pastime here, as is storytelling.
At the bar, Edward Gurneit told about scavenging old bombs from the target ship. “We used to sell them to tourists,” he said. “You had to walk along the welded marks of the ship.”
Vicki Diamond won meat package #1, but couldn’t bask in the moment because she hadn’t arrived yet. Then she won another. Then she won a consolation drawing. When she finally walked in, the lounge erupted in a chorus of friendly boos. One Elk yelled, “Vicki the meat queen!”
When I asked what she was most looking forward to cooking, she pointed to a package yet to be drawn. Package #7 contained a 10-inch chicken pot pie in addition to 6.5 lbs. of meat. “I really want that chicken pot pie,” she said.