A Feast for The Senses in the Fight for a Cure
Rod ’n’ Reel’s 27th Annual Celebration of Life Gala brings people together for a good cause and a great party
by Margaret Tearman
If you’re into the Jimmy Buffet thing, there’s no bigger, or better, party in Chesapeake Country. There are serious things out there the cause of all this revelry, cancer, high among them but tonight, they’re left behind. Tonight, people let their hair down. Tonight, Rod ’n’ Reel’s 27th annual Celebration of Life is all for the moment while the champagne bubbles and before the chocolate melts.
From the west, the low sun illuminates the Bay. Cars, limos, buses pour the people out, and by foot, golf cart and shuttle they converge, dressed to party: men wearing their flashiest Tommy Bahama and women baring tanned legs and showing cleavage.
Music sets the beat. But before dancing, you wander.
Every step you take puts opportunity for decadent indulgence before you. Champagne? Right here. Martinis, margaritas, mixed drinks, beer? You won’t have to look far. No, you won’t go thirsty here.
Nor hungry. This party has gained fame not only for the money raised for the American Cancer Society but equally for its gastronomical generosity: 1,200 pounds of lobster, 1,000 pounds of shrimp, heaps of oysters, clams and crabs, slabs of beef, whole hogs.
And chocolate. Chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, pastries filled and frosted with chocolate: milk chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, dark chocolate.
“This year we’re going heavy on the dark chocolate,” promises Executive Chef William Bednar, “After all, it’s an antidioxidant and good for you.”
After sundown, feasters become dancers. Swaying and strutting, celebrating the goodness of being alive, fed and feted, on a summer’s night.
This is a party big enough to encompass a thousand competing sights that, blink … and in that strobe second, a revelation might have come and gone.
This is a party big enough to hold a hundred thousand stories. But you, in the headlong rush to the next experience, might not hear a single one.
To whet your appetite, let us tell you about just one of many sights and share one or two of many stories.
A Feast for the Eyes
Everything about the night is more than a little over the top. There are no boundaries to indulgence. For this evening, mere ice cubes and ordinary melon balls don’t make the cut.
Instead blocks of ice become crystalline fish jumping from a sea of merrymakers. In the middle of it all, an island of vegetables becomes paradise found.
Renowned vegetable artist James Parker returns to this year’s gala for his third encore. With help from three comrades in carving, Michael Verno from Miami and Ray Duey from California, Parker will recreate for the gala his award-winning vegetable and fruit sculpture, Treasures Lost, Paradise Found.
Originally created for cable television’s Food Network Fruit Sculpture Rematch, the fanciful piece brought Parker first place and sweet revenge.
“In 2007, I competed in the Food Network’s Challenge Fantasy Fruit Carving competition. I lost.” A construction-worker turned culinary student took home the $10,000 prize. Parker didn’t take the loss sitting down.
“A year and a half later,” Parker says, “I requested a rematch. I didn’t like a student beating me, and the judges were pastry chefs. My confidence had been presented as arrogance and cockiness. This time, I won. I cried at the end. I carry my gold medal wherever I go.”
Fashioned out of an estimated 400 pounds of vegetables and fruits including at least four varieties of squash, rhubarb, cantaloupe, honey dew, watermelon, pumpkin, chilies and carrots the prize-winning fantasy island will stand over eight feet tall.
It will resemble the winning sculpture, but it won’t be a replica; Parker hopes it will be even better.
“This is the chance to perfect the winning piece without television cameras and rules getting in the way,” Parker told Bay Weekly. “It won’t be perfect. It never is, because I am always perfecting my work, making each piece better than the one before.”
Behind the Curtain
All the splashy decadence that put this party on the map and over the years raised more than $3.4 million for cancer research doesn’t happen with the wave of a magic wand.
“We get started on next year’s Gala right away,” says Gerald Donovan, who, with his brother Freddy, owns Rod ’n’ Reel and hosts the Gala. “We start by recapping the night, soliciting opinions as we work to figure out what to change to improve next year’s event.”
For the past year, a herd of volunteers has been working to bring this year’s gala to life.
Gerald Donovan, right, with 2007 chairs Phillip and Jeannie Stone, hosted the first Celebration of Life Gala 27 years ago.
“The whole thing is a volunteer effort,” Donovan says. “So many have given their lifeline of time to the event. We have 100-plus volunteers, from Bay captains who do the outdoor cooking to Julie’s School of Dance teens who pass hors d’oeuvres. These are the unsung heroes of the night.”
Leading the volunteer pack are this year’s Honorary Chairs, Pat and Bob Carpenter, players in the Washington scene, who now live next door to Rod ’n’ Reel at Windward Key.
“We were honored to be asked,” Pat told Bay Weekly. “It was a very easy thing to say yes to. I lost my father to brain cancer, and Bob’s mother died of ovarian cancer. We have several other family members who are cancer survivors. It’s a cause we feel is very worthy.”
The Carpenter’s goal is to top the half-million mark by bringing in $100,000 in new money. To accomplish that feat, they have recruited their own A-team of volunteers.
“Each team member has both the names of people who’ve given before and their own personal list,” Pat says. “For months, they’ve been sending letters, making calls and knocking on doors. It is a huge effort.
“My training and background has been in fundraising,” she explains. “We have only lived in Chesapeake Beach for six years, so we’re still newcomers.” Pat is using her lasting connections to fundraising advantage. “We have a network of people who are new to the Gala.”
“We sent out 350 letters to our Christmas card list, friends, colleagues, former neighbors, asking for their support,” Bob says.
The mass mailing is working. Contributions are rolling in from friends and colleagues living as far away as California, Kansas and Oregon.
“It’s fun to go to the mailbox and see who has responded,” Pat says. “Of course, a lot of these people can’t attend, but they still want to contribute to the cause. That is pretty cool.”
The first Gala, in 1982, raised $5,300. Last year 26 years later the Gala raised over $426,000. The Carpenter’s team is working to grow that figure to $526,000 or more.
“I know how tough times are, but cancer doesn’t know that. We still need to find a cure,” says Pat. “And you know, Bob and I have attended a lot of good parties, and this is really one of the best around.”