What band goes best with making 150,000 enchiladas? Iron Butterfly, of course.
Late on a Friday in February, a group of weary volunteers has stuffed and rolled and boxed and stacked around 150,000 enchiladas.
Their concoctions are stowed by the dozen in Styrofoam boxes marked with a number: #1 for the enchilada with everything and so forth, up to variety #7. These volunteers spent the day in a small kitchen, dealing with cold food and numbing repetition.
Only one thing can perk this group back up: a blast of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-da-Vida.”
“That’s always been our theme song,” said Tom Wilhelm, a long time participant in the annual enchilada fundraiser for St. Laurence O’Toole Catholic School in Laramie, Wyoming. He’s taught at the school since 1981 and has been principal there since 1999. He’s also a musician and the host of “Ranch Breakfast Show,” a long running bluegrass program on Wyoming Public Radio.
Wilhelm remembers the early days of the enchilada sale, which like most big things, started small. A local parent, Richard Frausto, had children attending St. Laurence. Frausto and his brother owned El Conquistador, a Mexican restaurant still popular in Laramie today.
Frausto thought up the fundraiser because volunteers could make the enchiladas using his restaurant’s hand-made tortillas on a Sunday, when the place was closed. Wilhelm, who taught at the school but wasn’t on the committee then, recalls that they made about 150 dozen enchiladas in about 15 different varieties. Volunteers loaded up their cars with several dozen apiece and drove around town, delivering to people who’d ordered in advance.
The combination of yummy enchiladas delivered to the doorstep for a good cause was a hit with Laramie-ites. “It caught on, mostly through word of mouth,” Wilhelm said. “People would ask, ‘hey where’d you get these?’” Before they knew it, they had more success than they could keep up with, he said. “We gave up making tortillas, gave up driving around. Now we have to have people come to school and pick their order up.”
But those concessions to efficiency didn’t stop the orders from coming in. “We were making 500 dozen and thought we couldn’t make more. Then we went to 1000 dozen, then to 1200 to 1300 dozen, which we’ve done each year since around 1997 or 1998.”
Clearly, this effort wouldn’t happen without lots of organized and devoted volunteers. Most of them are parents or grandparents of children attending St. Laurence. Christine Gray, along with her husband Mike, are the parents of two young boys who’re students at the school. Because Mitchell and Cooper are enrolled there, Gray says, she’s glad to be involved. “It is such as neat community sort of thing. Not only are you meeting other parents but you are really doing something that is important and for a good cause.”
Gray has risen in the volunteer ranks over the five years she’s been involved. She and her husband started as potato and onion choppers. “The next year we did a bit of rolling, which was fun.” Apparently her dedication and skill paid off, for she is now in charge of stacking. That means she hangs around outdoors of a February evening, constructing shelves in the refrigerator truck out of milk crates and tables on which to stack the finished products. She sees that the enchiladas are organized for easy retrieval the next day. “We have a system,” she said. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”
Wilhelm agrees with that assessment. “We used to do things like cooking potatoes from scratch, and chopping onions on Thursday, which took all day. It got to be too much. We were rolling enchiladas on Saturday right before people came. Then someone said, ‘I wonder if we could find potatoes that were already chopped up.’”
Wilhelm recalls a local doctor who was a regular volunteer in the days when they still prepared and chopped onions and potatoes by hand. Instead of being called Dr. Connelly, around the St. Laurence kitchen he was simply “Spuds.”
In an effort to reduce the logistical nightmare from this labor-intensive fundraiser, volunteers have recorded in a composition notebook each year’s organizational hits and misses. Wilhelm acknowledges that over the years everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, from receiving the meat still frozen to being sent the wrong size tortillas. “One year the road was closed because of a big snow storm and school was cancelled. We had to announce on the radio that there was no school at St. Laurence, but parents still had to show up for their enchilada shift. The radio station gave us a hard time about that.”
According to Wilhelm, this fundraiser usually clears around $18,000, which goes into the school’s operating fund. Parents who “volunteer” to help get a little taken off the top of their children’s tuition.
“We always have fun although it gets to be exhausting by Friday afternoon,” Wilhelm said. Then it is time for the music. “You really get to know somebody if you roll enchiladas with them.”