Nfld. & Labrador

It takes an army and a lot of peeling to dish up this church's seal flipper dinner

For 50 years, the seal flipper dinner at Wesley United Church in downtown St. John's has been a sold-out event.

For 50 years, the Wesley United Church has been organizing fundraising seal dinners

These are just some of the volunteers who work hard to get a seal flipper dinner on the tables as Wesley United Church in St. John's. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

The cooks behind the massively popular seal flipper dinners at Wesley United Church in downtown St. John's are proof that you don't have to love what you do, in order to do it well.

"I don't like flippers. Nope.… But I've been cooking them for over 20 years," says Phoebe Sheppard, chair of the Fall Fair Committee at the church, which organizes three annual seal flipper dinner fundraisers at the church.

"I've tried it, but I don't like it. No.… And maybe it's because I see them before they're cleaned," she said with a laugh.

If you like flippers you really like them.- Melvin Barnes

Joan Strickland has been on the committee for as long as she can remember, but added, "I don't ever eat flipper," she said with a laugh. "Sorry."

Strickland, who calls herself a "real townie," said she's been cooking seal since the first dinner — back in the 1960s.

"The first time I cooked flippers was back in the '60s. They brought me flippers to cook for the radio station VOWR. They gave all their volunteers a dinner, and it was gonna be flipper. So that was my first experience."

Happy diners dig into a feed of seal flipper. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

When Strickland agreed to cook them flippers, she had no idea she'd still be at it 50 years later.

"Every year I say this is gonna be my last year," Strickland said.

"This year we're gonna retire. Every year we say the same thing," chimed in Sheppard.

The three dinners usually sell out, with demand for a feed of flipper at an all-time high.

Marvin Barnes, treasurer of the committee for Wesley Church, said people who come to the flipper dinners are dedicated lovers of seal.

Volunteers spend hours hunched over a garbage bin, peeling pound after pound of carrot, turnip and potatoes. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

"They're so popular. We've got people, some of our regulars, they come to all three of ours and they go to 10 or 11 others. It's nothing for some of these guys to go to 15 or 16 flipper dinners every spring," said Barnes.

"Now I like flipper, but two or three is my limit," he added with a laugh. "People love flippers. Or, if you like flippers you really like them."

Most of the attendees at the flipper dinner are from an older generation, with few young faces at the tables waiting for a feed.

But despite a generational split, Barnes said a seal flipper meal fundraiser is a great draw for people who don't want to go through the ordeal of cooking seal themselves.

"I think that's the big attraction actually. If you're at home, let's say you're a couple, it's a lot of work to prepare and clean, cook and everything else. It's messy. So people will pay a few bucks to go out somewhere to have it and leave all the bits behind, so to speak," he said.

The seal flipper dinner fundraiser is usually a sold-out event. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

"Some people say it tastes a lot like turrs.… It has a little bit of a fishy taste, but that's the closest thing most people compare it to."

To get the hundreds of hungry mouths fed, it takes a small army of volunteers, hacking away at turnip, potatoes and carrots.

"We're gonna peel 30 pounds of carrot. And then we'll start on the turnip," said volunteer Gus Dillon, working his peeler down yet another carrot.

"I just do what these two tell me," said Don Way, from around the bay, referring to Strickland and Sheppard.

"I take orders at home and I do it down here."

A volunteer brings out seal flipper dinners to happy diners. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

'Don't blow it'

For his part, Barnes said there's plenty of seal to go around.

"You've got nine million seals out there, so what a great economic opportunity to hunt more," Barnes said.

But if you haven't called to book a seat yet, he said it's unlikely you'll get one of the last dinners of the season on June 6.

"Frequently we're sold out a week before, sometimes two weeks before. And phones are ringing off the wall," he said.

"Don't blow it."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Gavin Simms

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