ELLSWORTH, MAINE -- After solving earlier technical problems that knocked him off the air temporarily, Eddie Owen is back live on WDEA-AM from the Rotary Club's annual blueberry pancake breakfast.
"So, if you haven't made up your mind about breakfast yet, come on down to the Ellsworth City Hall," says Owen. It is 8:55 a.m., a rather leisurely time for breakfast, especially for Owen's Downeast Maine audience.
Perhaps not since Don McNeill's Breakfast Club was broadcast on network radio in the days before television has the day's first meal had such prominence on the airwaves. But then, breakfast seems more appreciated here than in most places.
Maine is the first state in the nation to see the sun every day, unless the fog is too thick, and because of the northern latitude the August sky shows hints of dawn before 4 a.m. Lobstermen are climbing aboard their boats before sunup and clam diggers, depending on the tide, may be headed out to the flats even earlier. In fact, the population in general just gets revved up earlier, so when the Rotarians start flipping their pancakes at 6 a.m., there's a large audience ready to go.
Of course, nowhere else in the world is one likely to get wild Maine blueberries in pancakes, which is attraction enough. Blueberries are very big business around here but most of the berries shipped out of state have been frozen and are destined for use in muffin mixes and processed foods. The cultivated blueberries the rest of the world buys somewhat fresh in the supermarket are larger in size and less intense in flavor.
But, pancakes aside, the gathering on this misty August Saturday morning has other attractions. District attorney Michael Povich leads the Fletcher's Landing Philharmonic Orchestra (drums, tuba, trombone, banjo and keyboard) in entertaining the crowd. Rep. Olympia Snowe, who weekends at nearby Hancock Point, is said to be coming (though she never arrives). Actually here is Neil Rolde, who is running for the U.S. Senate against Billy (as he's still known to a lot of Eastern Mainers) Cohen -- and a very strong tide.
The breakfast had been advertised for 6-10 a.m., but serving is already underway when the bells in the steeple of the First Congregational Church, built in 1847, directly across Church Street from the City Hall, start chiming 6 o'clock. "That's the official time," says Rotary Club president Ray Huntley.
Early arrivals have already been through the open-sided, green-striped tent set up on the pavement in front of the police department dispatcher's office, filled their plates and walked into the city hall auditorium to eat their breakfasts. (In nicer weather, the long folding tables are set up on the lawn.)
It'll take a lot of diners, a lot of second helpings, before the pancakes are all gone. There are seven galvanized cans (the kind you put out for the trash man) full of batter that was mixed on Friday night in a school kitchen, refrigerated and left to set overnight, then brought down to the breakfast in a Hancock County Creamery truck.
Whether this is the 27th or 28th breakfast is a matter of some discussion among Huntley, breakfast chairman George Mitchell ("There's a lot of George Mitchells, I'm one of the less important ones") and others. All agree, however, that about 1,500 diners attend every year. Another constant is the menu: blueberry pancakes, coffee, tea, orange juice. "Never altered it," says Mitchell.
By 8 o'clock the line to go through the serving tent is backed up on Church Street, making it difficult for the police cruisers to pull in. Mitchell says the problem now is that the diners are lingering to listen to the music (and Povich's banter) and that 250 seats just aren't enough.
One of the breakfasters, Tug White, a member of the Ellsworth High School state championship basketball team of the early '50s, notes that the band plays together "infrequently." Povich (keyboard and emcee) acknowledges to the crowd that the band is "playing songs from the 19th century."
All things considered, it's more likely the pancakes than the music filling the hall.
The pancakes are cooked on the Rotary Club's 14 commercial gas griddles, set up seven on a side facing each other and manned in two, two-hour shifts by 28 members. The diners first pay (all you can eat for $3), then take a plastic plate and pass down the aisle between the grills to get a stack of pancakes from any cook who has some ready. "I have five down here," shouts one Rotarian.
Huntley mans a griddle on the second shift. "I have my trick; I always take a grill behind a guy who is a professional cook and has it set up right," he says, meaning the temperature is just right and the griddle has been greased just so. Each cook has extra blueberries to add to the pancakes as needed or requested.
Among the first-shift chefs (though not on Huntley's grill) is Dick Dudman, owner of station WDEA, which has made it back on the air without too much trouble. (Owen and an engineer back at the station, which is in the big white house diagonally across State Street from the First Congregational Church, communicate by wigwagging their hands. The problem is solved by pushing a button that hadn't been pushed.)
Dudman is also the retired Washington bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and for big-time friends in big-time Washington who are incredulous that they would know a Rotarian ("Rotary Club?") in Ellsworth, Maine, Dudman has a simple answer: "You have your Gridiron Club, we have our Rotary."
He also has his sailboat in Blue Hill Bay and fresh blueberries every August. Beat that.