Sassafras Ball: This gala’s roots reach deep into hearts that want to help

Posing with a set-up for the Sassafras Ball, which will be Saturday, May 7, at the Clayton Center for the Arts, are Blount Memorial Foundation Executive Director Jane Andrews and Sassafras Ball co-chairs Joy Carver and Abby Bussey.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Posing with a set-up for the Sassafras Ball, which will be Saturday, May 7, at the Clayton Center for the Arts, are Blount Memorial Foundation Executive Director Jane Andrews and Sassafras Ball co-chairs Joy Carver and Abby Bussey.

Take one look at some of the items on the menu for the Inaugural Sassafras Ball and your mouth starts to water: Georgia Pecan-encrusted Smoked Prime Rib, Ono Island Seafood Medley and Delta Duck roulade. Got a sweet tooth? How does Peaches and Cream Pound Cake, Kentucky Derby Tarts and Fig Pecan Pies sound?

This is a long way from “hospital food.”

But it isn’t, as with galas and events sponsored by Blount Memorial Foundation in the past, the Inaugural Sassafras Ball will have a menu prepared by the culinary professionals on the hospital staff who work every day to present good food to hospital patients and staff.

The galas, however, give them a chance to shine.

The food service personnel at Blount Memorial Hospital prepared the meals the Foundation’s successful Valentine Gala for nine years. The Valentine Gala annually raised needed funds for the Good Samaritan Clinic. Two years ago, the Foundation board opted to go another direction with their fund raising, keeping their fall golf tournament but letting the gala idea “sit” for a couple of years, said Executive Director Jane Andrews.

“The Valentine Gala was the traditional fundraiser for nine years, and, for a number of reasons, we needed to refresh the whole concept,” Andrews said.

That new concept is the Sassafras Ball, sponsored by the Blount Memorial Foundation and Community Outreach and planned for Saturday, May 7, on the plaza at Clayton Center for the Arts.

The Southern themed menu is just the start. The hospital’s food service is creating the menu and preparing the food for the event. “They are doing all the food. Food Service director Glen Gray, assistant Food Service director Melissa Robinette and head chef Jeffrey Counts are really putting all their creativity together to come up with a really top-notch menu,” she said.

Robinette said they put their thinking caps on to come up with just the right dishes. “We wanted something elegant, something Southern,” Robinette said.

Gray said they gave many of the items Counts will fix Southern names just for the occasion. “The Georgia pecan-encrusted smoked prime rib has a demi-glaze that will knock your socks off,” Gray said. “The Ono Island seafood medley is going to have fresh Gulf seafood, including lobster and scallops, seasoned in butter with a light cream sauce. It’s scary good,” he said.

Gray said the Delta Duck roulade recipe was something he got from a Ducks Unlimited Magazine. “That’s the first thing he recommended,” Robinette said. “He said, ‘I’ve got the best recipe for Duck roulade.”

To get guests tastebuds in the mood for dinner, appetizers will include large Gulf of Mexico shrimp cocktail, garden vegetables with Destin dill dip, crab-stuffed mushroom caps and sun-sparkled fruit. A crispy raspberry romaine salad will also be on the menu. Guests will also enjoy sweet Savannah baby carrots, Southern belle asparagus bouquet and Mardi Gras wild rice along with Veranda brioche breads.

Save room, the culinary cooks warn. Desserts also aren’t to be missed. “The Peaches and Cream pound cake will be a rich pound cake with fresh peaches with a peach glaze,” Robinette said.

“Our suppliers are flying in a lot of this fresh, like the fig pecans,” Gray said.

Robinette said this is the same company they buy a lot of their ingredients for food served to patients and in the café. “We don’t have duck on a day-to-day basis, but we’re getting what we need,” she said. “We’re looking forward to this.”

Andrews knows from experience that her menu is in good hands. “People were just wowed at how elegant and delicious the food was for the Valentine Galas, and I don’t expect this to be any different. They take a lot of pride at being able to offer something that special,” she said. “It is kind of a break from their regular routine of fixing meals for patients and cafeteria, so they enjoy it.”

And Andrews is happy to have the help of a great menu. Event planning when raising funds for areas that really need it can be a challenge, said Andrews.

“You do events for a number of reasons. One of our goals is to raise money for services for cancer patients, but we also do it to raise awareness and to celebrate what the donors and foundation have done,” she said. “It’s a reason to come together and celebrate the accomplishments the foundation has had over the years.”

The roots of the Sassafras Ball reach back to 2002 and will touch many in the Blount County community. Andrews says the Sassafras Ball has its roots in a conversation she had with George “Gig” Painter when he was undergoing chemotherapy at Blount Memorial Hospital in 2002.

Painter saw something he knew had to changed, said Andrews. He saw patients battling cancer who were also having to worry about paying the electric bill.

The Sassafras Ball will benefit the Blount Memorial Foundation’s Fund for Cancer Patient Needs.

“The whole notion of a Fund for Cancer Patient Needs was birthed by Gig Painter, who passed away a number of years ago,” Andrews said, adding that the fund was established in 2005. Andrews said that when Painter came for chemotherapy treatment, the accommodations weren’t what they are now at the Blount Memorial Hospital Cancer Center.

“When Gig would come for chemo therapy treatment, it was like a closet. He talked with people as they were getting treatments, he realized people were having to struggle with questions like ‘Can I pay my utility bill or can I buy groceries this week.’ He was on the foundation board, and he came to me and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” Andrews said. “He was such a champion.”

“The gist of his words, it was like he was laying out a command: ‘I’m going home to a comfortable house and can pay my bills, but there are so many people who can’t,’” she said. “The desire to help was there. That was his character.”

The fund was born out of Painter’s concern, said Andrews. “He did this in an extremely difficult time of his life. He was more focused on what we needed to do to help other people. He was my dear, dear friend and a real champion,” she said. “He’s been that voice that has been there. I think Gig would really be proud of what we’re doing, but we’ve still got a long way to go, and there are still more people with needs.”

Andrews said she and others planning the event wanted something different to serve as an annual gala fundraiser. “We came up with the notion of the Sassafras Ball because it sounds fun and sassy, and if that doesn’t grab your attention, you’re probably not a good candidate to attend,” she said. “We took our time so we could come up with something that would have a good life to it. We’ll do it year-after-year, possibly a different tag or theme, but we wanted to find something people would remember from year to year.”

Andrews said the Plaza at the Clayton Center will take on a different look on May 7 with help from their “generous sponsors Campbell Tent and Party Rentals.”

“They are going to transform the plaza at the Clayton Center into a Southern summer elegant party scene,” she said.

The foundation executive director said the Sassafras Gala will begin with a cocktails followed by appetizers and then dinner at 7:30 p.m. When dinner is served, The Uptown Entertainment Band from Atlanta will perform.

“They are Motown oldies and play up-to-date music. They will play after dinner is served and they will play until 11 p.m. During the breaks, we’ll have opportunities to tell our guests why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Andrews said the Sassafras will benefit those people who, through no fault of their own, don’t have access to quality of life things.

“We are talking about people who are receiving excellent care here as patients and leaving here and going home to find no food in the refrigerator. Or their electricity is turned off because they made the choice of buying medicine instead of paying the electricity bill,” she said. “The Sassafras Gala gives people the opportunity to help those in their own community who are struggling financially at a time when they are also dealing with life-threatening illness.”

Sometimes the assistance given through the foundation is a simple as a gas or grocery voucher.

“It is a marriage of people who have willing hearts and are financially capable to buy tickets to this event or make contributions to help folks who find themselves in situations where they have to decide which basic need they have leave off to meet this need,” Andrews said.

“It’s not just those who are poor, but it is folks who may have lost their job and insurance. I’ve had some say to me, ‘I never thought I’d be in a situation to ask for help.’ It is just regular people who are finding themselves in situations because of their illness combined with a job loss or loss of insurance. But they’re grateful. Many will turn around and say, ‘When I get on my feet I want to help others.’”

In addition to tickets and donations, the ball will have a silent auction, but it will be smaller than some in the past.

“We’re keeping the auction small so people can visit, and we can share the story of what we’re doing. We have items like Taylor Swift tickets, a wine basket, tickets to other events and Clayton Center tickets,” she said.

Andrews said there also will be a set of two seats taken from Thompson Boling Arena and signed by former UT men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt.

“Everything is going to be under the tent, which is one of things we couldn’t do at the gala.”

Andrews said it will be a time for folks to gather in a good atmosphere, contribute to a good cause, have a great time and help those who are less fortunate. Tickets are $125 each, but $65 of the price is tax-deductable. “There are tables of eight. We’ve already had 12 or 14 tables reserved.”

And men can leave their tuxedos at home. Andrews said dress for the event is evening casual. “Think garden party casual,” she said.

Joy and Will Carver and Abby and Aaron Bussey are serving as co-chairs for the event, Andrews said.

“They are a part of that younger generation, and I see them providing leadership,” Andrews said. “I appreciate them doing that. They’ve been touched by the whole issue of cancer, as I have to,” Andrews said.

Joy Carver said the Sassafras Ball fits her. “It is sundresses for the gals, seer-sucker for the fellas, outdoors, live music and great food,” she said. “It has all the makings of a perfect evening in my book. More than the event and the fun - the cause fits me. The Sassafras Ball is going to be a wonderful time. It is going to serve an even more-wonderful cause.”

Joy Carver recalled the past four years how her father, Blount Chamber Partnership CEO and president and retired Air National Guard Gen. Fred Forster, endured cancer treatments. He died Nov. 18, 2010.

“Over the past four years, we have been in the chemo room with many who were having to miss work again in order to get the care their bodies so desperately needed,” she said. “And the foundation wants to make the road to healing a little bit easier through the patient support arm of the Cancer Center. Sadly, my dad won’t be with us this summer as we dance and mingle under the tent at the Sassafras Ball. He sure did look good in his seer-sucker suit, and I will miss him terribly. However, I am certain that the hope of helping his fellow ‘comrades’ in the war against cancer will make the night all the more enjoyable.”

Bussey said that since moving to Maryville five years ago, she has been inspired by Blount County’s commitment to service. “I’ve been searching for opportunities to be more involved in our community. When I was approached about co-chairing the Sassafras Ball, I did not even have to think about my response,” she said. “I am thrilled to be a part of this endeavor to ease the burden of those who have been diagnosed with cancer.”

For more information and tickets, call 865-977-5727, visit the web site at or find the Sassafras Ball on Facebook.

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