About thirty-five years ago, next to the stage -- or rather, next to Bubba Crosby's flat-bed truck, which served as the stage -- a group of church women pulled up a wheelbarrow-like contraption and out of it began selling homemade pimento cheese, tomato, ham or turkey sandwiches to attendees of the Bluffton Village Festival.
"They were so cute in their straw hats," said Babbie Guscio, recalling the way the women looked on the day the tradition began.
Guscio is the creator and grande dame of the festival -- which many refer to informally as MayFest. The event is now run by the Rotary Club of Bluffton and celebrates its 37th year this Saturday in Old Town.
"They didn't know how it would go," Guscio said, "so they kept the sandwiches simple that first year."
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It was Guscio who had asked the women to make and sell the sandwiches there. She thought it might be nice for festivalgoers to have something to nibble on as they mingled among artists and watched the performances. The women were hesitant, though. After all, it would mean a lot of potentially wasted food and potentially wasted work. Do people even want to eat their sandwiches at the festival?
Turns out people did. People really did. So much so that the women's ministry of The Church of the Cross made $500 that year. So much so that the festival, to those in the know, has become synonymous with the thought "I get to eat a Church of the Cross shrimp salad sandwich this Saturday!"
People line up at the church tent right at 10 a.m., with coolers in hand, to make sure they get their sandwiches, which typically run out by 1 p.m. If you want one, you need to follow suit.
Much like Bluffton itself, a lot has changed about the sandwiches over the years, going from the tentative familiars to the more labor-intensive shrimp salad variety, from containing onions to not containing onions, from the original recipe to the "new one," which is from Stiles Harper's family, given to the women's ministry somewhere around 1990.
"My mother's mother came up with the recipe," said Harper, who lives in Bluffton and is known for his orchid collection, which he opens to public viewing once a year. "It was served on Boston lettuce leaves as a main course or a side course."
Harper grew up in Estill and has a Southern charm so potent that it made me want to hear every story he knows to tell and to know every observation he's made about life and the people in his.
As he talked about the days when he and the Church of the Cross women used the commercial kitchen in his home to make things like deviled crab, artichoke relish, fig preserves and pumpkin chips for fundraisers, I pictured myself perched on his counter, plucking watermelon rinds from a jar and watching as they laughed and fussed.
"This sounds disgusting," he told me on the phone, "but it's really good. I used to boil the shrimp in big pots and take them off the stove so the fat from the shrimp would congeal. Once it settled, I'd strain the fat and put it in my salad. But a few of the women didn't like the idea of congealed shrimp fat. One Saturday, two of the resisters were late so I put the fat in the salad. 'This is the best shrimp salad I've ever eaten,' they said. I was smug about it."
As a child, Melanie Heyward of Bluffton helped make the sandwiches alongside her mother, Clare Heyward.
"We boiled all the shrimp and shelled them and cut them into big chunks," Heyward said. "Then my mom would make shrimp stock with the shells and she'd freeze it and use it in other recipes. ... I loved helping in the kitchen, and my mom was the best cook ever.
"I used to buy a shrimp salad sandwich every year (after she died in 1991) because it made me think of her."
The Cross Christian Women -- which is named so for the church and not because they are in any way "cross" -- will make the shrimp salad on Friday but put together the sandwiches on Saturday, in an assembly line of sorts. It's a simple recipe, involving shrimp (obviously), mayonnaise, celery, eggs and seasoning.
"It takes an army of women to make those sandwiches," Guscio said.
Becky Owens, wife of church pastor the Rev. Chuck Owens said the women will make 650 sandwiches this year. The money raised will go to service projects and will provide for grants.
"It really is a lot of fun," Owens said of the sandwich-making. "There's a lot of chatter. It's a happy time. ... It's just such a good tradition, one of the great traditions."
One fan of the shrimp salad sandwich will have to wait till this summer for his, though.
Owens' son-in-law is a big fan and requests it during family vacations.
"I make it all the time," Owens said. "The kids love it when they come visit."