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Table for Everyone

Community dinners buck the single-serving trend


Published June 24, 2009 at 5:42 a.m.

Raise your hand if you find yourself eating the majority of your meals alone. It’s likely that most of you reading this have your hands poking up in the sky, unless you don’t want to admit it, or you’re too cool to participate in this little exercise.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us can cop to the charge of being solitary eaters — at least until we have mouths to feed besides our own. Often it’s just more practical to heat up leftovers or grab a sandwich than it is to plan a meal with other people. Busy schedules draw family members apart at mealtimes — sometimes even parents and kids. Whatever the reason, many of us no longer take our meals with others.

Before human interaction became so compartmentalized and sanitized, eating was a cooperative endeavor. Breaking bread with friends and extended family was the norm, and for single people or those far from home, sharing a table with strangers wasn’t as odd as it would seem today.

Many families are making a conscious effort to get back to the model of eating together. But collective dining on a larger scale isn’t dead, either. Not surprisingly, Vermont offers no shortage of community dinners, ranging from the free to the fancy and encompassing everything in between. In church basements and school gymnasiums, community centers and white-tablecloth restaurants, people are eating together, building or restoring feelings of community and neighborhood that have in many places been largely forgotten.

In Burlington, the most successful of such public meals is the Old North End community dinner in the McClure Multigenerational Center, hosted by long-time community activist Janet Hicks. On the second Thursday of every month for the past 11 years, she has cooked a free meal for as many as 70 people, though the average number is somewhere around 40.

Getting in touch with Hicks to talk about her community activism through food is like shooting a moving target. With her various social justice projects, she’s a busy woman. Her voicemail is full, and she’s hard to track down, as she’s often out gathering food for the dinner.

For each monthly meal, Hicks travels to area grocery stores and picks up food that is past its sell-by date but still safe to eat. Then she heads for the Intervale to get discounted or gleaned produce. She pays for the meals with donations and, often, her own money.

Sarah Giannoni, an AmeriCorps program assistant at the Community and Economic Development Office, says she saw the fruits of Hicks’ labor when she was involved in neighborhood organizing. Neighbors were able to meet in a neutral setting and often mobilize on issues such as vandalism and noise in their community. That’s the ultimate goal of community dinners, Giannoni says.

“It’s easier for people to organize if they already know each other,” she says. “The dinners bring people together to get to know each other in a positive way.”

That’s what Hicks has accomplished in the Old North End, where her dinners attract everyone from privileged college students to low-income seniors. “It’s pretty amazing that she does it,” Giannoni says.”

Hicks recognized early on that food is the best way to attract people to a community meeting, Giannoni notes. The dinners were born from that understanding. Each meal is followed by a meeting of the Neighborhood Planning Assembly. Not many people stay for the nuts-and-bolts talk, she concedes, but at least they know it’s happening and can choose to let their voices be heard.

While there are other free community dinners like Hicks’, they are less about building community than about meeting an essential need for people who are food insecure. The Salvation Army and the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf host regular free meals, as do other local churches and nonprofits.

Hicks’ dinners are monthly; for most people, especially apartment or condo dwellers, dinner with neighbors is an even rarer occurrence. It’s a different story at Burlington Cohousing East Village, which holds a community dinner in its ground-floor common area every even-numbered night to build on its sense of togetherness.

Since its East Avenue development was completed in 2007, the community of 60 has been eating together. The dinner isn’t mandatory for residents, but for $4 a person, it’s the best dinner deal in town. And it’s open to anyone. People interested in buying one of the East Avenue units are required to join the residents for at least three of these meals to see what this particular intentional community is like.

As a part of the cohousing model, residents must agree to serve on various committees, such as cleaning, gardening and cooking. The cooking committee takes care of planning the meals and making sure special food restrictions, such as allergies or vegetarianism, are respected. Each meal is prepared by a head cook and three assistants. The head cook designs the menu, which is often made with local ingredients, including produce from the development’s extensive gardens.

On a recent evening, about 30 people gathered to eat chef Fiona Patterson’s salad Niçoise and spicy carrot soup — a last-minute addition that Patterson whipped up because of the cold, rainy weather.

A soft-spoken social worker and grandmother, Patterson prefers cooking for large groups, so preparing soup for 25 was no big deal. “You have to get the hang of it. You have to get the amounts right,” she says.

The diners, who ranged in age from mid-twenties to well past retirement, discussed the events of their respective days and what was going on in the news. Talk of the recent elections in Iran also filled the large dining room.

Clara Bond and her husband, Peter Carlough, normally eat at each community supper. They generally don’t stay long; they are news junkies and have to get back to their unit to watch the evening’s broadcasts. The couple never anticipated liking the meals as much as they do.

“I didn’t expect I would come to all the meals,” Bond says. “I sort of like my own company, but it beats cooking.”

Every Sunday, Burlington Cohousing hosts a community potluck to which people from outside the development are expressly invited. They’ve posted announcements on Front Porch Forum, but to date only a few people have attended. This surprises resident Joan Knight. For her, the dinner is the best deal going. “I think the meals are remarkably inexpensive for what you get,” she says.

At some community dinners, the focus is less on building a sense of neighborly communion than on building an appreciation of the local agricultural bounty. For the past year, Burlington’s Penny Cluse Café has been hosting monthly family-style dinners that spotlight different area growers. More recently, Timbers Restaurant at Sugarbush in Warren began offering localvore community dinners to draw attention to the agriculture of the Mad River Valley.

Each Friday in June, Timbers features dishes prepared by Chef Gerry Nooney, the resort’s jocular culinary maestro, showcasing local produce, protein and beverages. For $35, diners get all food and drink, plus a talk by a local food authority. The event is spun off from similar community dinners the resort hosted during the winter at Allyn’s Lodge.

The most recent dinner featured an appetizer of three different flatbreads with Vermont cheeses and a salad of local spinach, a breaded poached egg, local bacon and local parsnips. For the main course, Nooney served up Misty Knoll chicken on top of a heap of mashed potatoes with spring garlic and fresh peas picked that morning from the new Sugarbush garden across from the Gate House Lodge.

The meal was served with a spicy white Traminette from East Shore Vineyard in Grand Isle and Weiss-K, a German-style wheat bier from the valley’s own nanobrewery, Lawson’s Finest Liquids. The fresh strawberry dessert was paired with Lawson’s Maple Trippel, which brewer Sean Lawson crafts by substituting maple sap for water in the brewing process.

The diners were mostly middle-aged Sugarbush regulars, with a few out-of-towners thrown in the mix. The resort’s owner, Win Smith, sat at one end of the long table, which was elegantly appointed with a swag of burlap and delicate wildflowers, and cooed about the Misty Knoll chicken.

During the dinner, David Thurlow, director of foundation and corporation support for the Vermont Foodbank, spoke about the increasing need for charitable food donations. He briefed diners on the state of hunger in Vermont as well as on the organization’s newest acquisition, Kingsbury Farm, which will provide nearly 150,000 pounds of food to hungry Vermonters.

The obvious disparity between the diners and the people Thurlow’s organization serves was not lost on anyone there that night. The dinner, served by an attentive waitstaff, was a far cry from eating gleaned vegetables at the McClure Multigenerational Center, but perhaps it had a similar effect. People who might normally have been eating takeout in front of the TV, or at least sequestered in their own family dining rooms, left the table talking about a local problem and how they might help.