Woonsocket Knights of Columbus serving up a spicy sandwich for a good cause

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WOONSOCKET — Every year in late spring, Knights of Columbus from throughout Rhode Island gather in Woonsocket, where members of the local council cook up a fundraising dinner to support youth ministry programs at Rejoice in Hope Youth Center and the Father Marot CYO Center. While most councils and parishes throughout Rhode Island turn to pasta dinners and May breakfasts for their annual fundraisers, the Woonsocket Council looks no further than the dynamite, a local specialty that’s little-known outside the northern region of the state.

“You don’t have to go far,” said Jack Tracy, a member of the Woonsocket Council, as he prepared a batch of the spicy sandwich filling. “You go anywhere south of Lincoln, and they’re like, ‘A what?’”

No one is certain where the dynamite got its start, but the sandwich has become an undisputed staple at fundraisers, family gatherings and parish events throughout the northern Rhode Island city. It’s not unusual to see the dish ladled out of slow cookers at church functions, including the April 29 Teens Are Dynamite event sponsored by the Knights of Columbus State Council in the hall of St. Agatha Parish, Woonsocket.

So what exactly is a dynamite?

“One of the ways we describe it — and this is oversimplifying it — is it’s a jazzed up sloppy joe,” said Tracy.

With a ground beef and tomato sauce-based filling ready to trickle over the fingers, the dynamite certainly looks like a sloppy joe. However, even Tracy admits the comparison falls short. Overflowing with peppers and onions and served on a classic New England grinder roll, with a kick of crushed red pepper in the seasoning, the dynamite is like a grown-up older cousin of the classic kid’s lunch.

“It would be like calling a lasagna a layered pasta,” said Tracy. “It really doesn’t describe what you’re doing.”

On the morning of the event, members of the Woonsocket Council gathered in the kitchen of the parish hall to begin preparing the evening’s dynamites. Each batch requires 15 pounds of ground beef and several pans of roughly chopped peppers, onions and celery, which are combined with tomato sauce and simmered in a 10-gallon pot on the stove. Next come the spices, the highlight being the crushed red pepper that gives the dynamite its signature kick and, according to most accounts, its name.

“The whole thing comes down to this — the spices and the sauce,” said Richard Riel, a member of the Woonsocket Council who also assisted with the cooking. “Once you mix it all together, you want everything to sit and be friends. That’s a good dynamite.”

A traditional batch of dynamites might simmer on the stove for hours, but the Knights have developed a method to speed the process, pre-steaming the vegetables in the oven before mixing them into the pot. Many of those who cook for the youth ministry fundraiser also volunteer at the annual St. Agatha Parish dynamite booth at the local Autumnfest celebration, where parishioners have been serving up the sandwiches to hungry customers for years. In 2015, they sold over 30 batches in a single weekend, close to 1,000 pounds of the spicy mixture.

Tracy noted that while the basics of ground beef and tomato sauce are the same, everyone makes their dynamites differently. A quick internet search for “dynamite sandwiches” yields at least a dozen recipes, all based in Woonsocket but with countless variations in vegetables and seasoning, and some with additions like hot sauce or cheese.

“If I were to make it at home, I’m half Italian, garlic powder or actual garlic might go into the vegetables,” he said.

The recipe used by the Woonsocket Council was 20 years in the making as the St. Agatha Parish recipe before the Knights adopted it for the first Teens Are Dynamite youth ministry fundraiser in 2012. That first dinner, held at the Father Marot CYO Center, was a hit, and the annual event has since raised close to $24,000 for youth ministry in the Diocese of Providence. The location was moved to the parish hall in 2015 when the Knights realized that the convenience, and the smell of dynamites drifting through the church during 5 o’clock Mass, would draw a larger crowd.

“Automatically, the traffic went up because this is a dynamite parish,” explained Tracy.

The event also draws Knights from councils throughout the state, many of whom attend with family members to show their support for the youth centers. For many, the fundraiser marked the first time they tried a dynamite, and they return every year to get their annual serving of the spicy treat.

“I’ve always done my best to come to it because number one, it’s deliciousness, and it’s for a nice cause,” said Tony Mercurio, a Cranston resident and member of the Johnston-based Scalabrini Council.

Brian McDermott, a friend of Mercurio’s visiting from New Haven, Connecticut, had never heard of the sandwich before the Saturday event.

“You bite into it and it’s got that nice spiciness in it,” he said. “And then you take a second and third bite and it’s gone.”

Despite the time and effort that goes into the cooking, Tracy said the Knights enjoy the work and hope to continue supporting youth ministry through the annual event.

“The best thing about these things is the camaraderie we develop while doing something good. We have a grand time,” he said.

Riel added that the best way to find out how a dynamite tastes is to come and have one yourself.

“You can’t describe it. You just have to try it,” he said.

Does your parish have a unique food important to its celebrations and heritage? Rhode Island Catholic wants to hear about it! Contact staff reporter Lauren Clem at lclem@thericatholic.com to share your Catholic culinary traditions.