Dec 07, 2011 11:14PM ● Published by Anonymous
Hungry guests, who just can’t wait until the official 8 a.m. opening time, begin turning up around 7:30, clamoring for a taste of those potatoes, served as part of the all-you-can-eat feast.
But Stephens isn’t a chef, nor does he run a restaurant. He’s the secretary for the Men’s Auxillary at the Grasonville VFW, which brings both members and people from the surrounding communities into the organization every month for a home-cooked meal.
These community meals, put on by a handful of organizations such as the VFW, churches, and fire halls, among others, are a deeply rooted tradition, put on by people who have been around for so long that it all runs like clockwork.
“Every guy has got his own job here,” says Stephens, who takes care of the food line and makes sure everything is set up. “It works out really well.”
History and Tradition
In some places, communities have been sitting down around the table together for more than half a century.
In the small southern Maryland town of Sunderland, All Saints Episcopal Church has held its annual summer supper for 66 years, raising money for the Episcopal Christan Women group. Treasurer Martha Graham began contributing her time and talent in 1961, when her family moved here from Florida. Now, she would never dare to miss a year.
“We all look forward to [the supper],” she says. “We put it on our calendar, and vacations and everything take a backseat to [that date].”
Preparation for the event begins two days before dinner is even served. However, the work and fellowship of those who volunteer their time is one of the best parts of the whole preparation process, Graham says.
“It’s a time for all the congregation to come together in this social working atmosphere, so it’s delightful,” she says. The preparations, whether it’s getting potatoes ready for potato salad or cutting cabbage for coleslaw, are done like an assembly line. One person peels the potatoes, then the next person removes the eyes, and then hands it to the person who boils them, and so on. The end result is a feast of ham and fried chicken, plus homemade crabcakes, to its 300-plus diners. The recipe for those crabcakes came from congregation member Jane Leitch’s mother. Leitch is now 74, giving you a sense of the history involved in this annual meal.
For some, the meals are just a way to bring people together. For other, it serves a bigger purpose. In Ridgely, Maryland, the ticket cost from New Beginning’s United Methodist Church’s all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner goes toward good causes, such as a youth bike-athon to combat juvenile diabetes. The Rev. Dartanyon Hines explains that this shows the community that “we’re doing something and allows them to contribute. They can help us help them.”
Down in Crisfield, Maryland, Pastor Harvey Tyler has been eating at his church’s dinners since he was a child. The Church of God is celebrating its 82nd year, and Tyler’s mother was a charter member.
As a boy, he remembers fried oyster dinners and dining in church members’ homes on Sunday evenings before the church had a fellowship hall. These days, the church holds a myriad of dinners throughout the year, right on site.
“Our church does not preach against gluttony, so we eat a lot,” Tyler says.
Some dinners are just for fun and fellowship, such as the annual Homecoming Dinner in October. Others are fundraisers for the church’s Christian School, while some meals are ways to give back to the community. One such event is known as Golden Harvest, a dinner open to anyone over age 50—which in Crisfield, quickly become a retirement community, is at least 35 percent of the of church’s membership. At the end of the dinner, each attendee takes home a bag of groceries, including food and household supplies.
“It stings that [the attendees] wouldn’t necessarily buy something like dishwashing liquid,” Tyler says. “These are things they would maybe skimp spending their money on.” The dinners have anywhere between 50 and 70 attendees each, as congregation members often bring their friends from around town.
For the fundraising dinners, nearly 70 percent of attendees are from the community, meaning they are not members of the church. The food lures them in, Tyler says. “It’s so good, it almost sells itself.” The menu is ever-changing, and the church dishes up anything from turkey to ham to oyster fritters to crabcakes, plus a heap of side dishes. No one goes home with an empty stomach.
As the members of many of these organizations start to age and the numbers perhaps begin to dwindle, there’s always a concern that the younger generation might not be willing to take over the responsibility for these meals.
Graham, down at All Saints, doesn’t seem too troubled. She has faith the community and congregation will continue the tradition that has grown to be so loved.
“Nothing is going to keep itself going without the young people,” she says. “But I’m very hopeful and excited about the young people in our church. We have a wonderful congregation.”