Moveable feast of Martha’s Vineyard community dinners warms winter

Peter Yoars (right), Marjorie Pierce, and Marsha Winsryg serve potluck concoctions at the Congregational Church in West Tisbury. — Photo by Don Hinkle

Many Island restaurants offer lower prices, two-for-one meals, and a variety of special deals during the winter months. But, for good home cooking and warm fellowship at an amazing price, nothing beats one of the four weekly Community Suppers held in churches from Chilmark to Edgartown.

Contributions, financial and sometimes culinary, are welcome, but guests who need a free meal will find it at any of the suppers. Nobody’s keeping an eye on the basket to see how much, if anything, you drop in. And guests of all ages are welcome.

Under the watchful eyes of members of the host congregation, young children, basking in the special thanks they receive, clear away empty plates or bring dessert to older patrons. More than one good neighbor brings an elderly shut-in to all the down-Island suppers to meet old friends, to enjoy someone else’s cooking, and maybe to chat with new friends about the Vineyard back in the day.

Volunteers from each congregation, and occasionally members of the Rotary Club, prepare and serve the food, sometimes bringing dishes cooked in their home kitchens, sometimes working in the church kitchen. These same volunteers donate much of the food, but many of the dishes are prepared from food donated by Island markets and food services.

Last week, I took my wife, Penny, out to all four suppers.

On Mondays, beginning at 5 pm, the Methodists feed the multitudes – 60 to 65 diners on an average Monday, closer to 100 at a holiday – in the Baylies Room of the Old Whaling Church, in Edgartown. For 18 years, the United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard has sponsored these suppers, from late October to the end of March, preparing and serving meals from food contributed by Island Foods, Stop & Shop, and members of the congregation. Five times a season, members of the Rotary Club prepare and serve the meal. The rest of the time, Karen Rego, wife of the Rev. Richard Rego, plans and prepares the meal, with a coterie of helpers.

Karen is at the church by 9:45 on Monday mornings to receive contributed food and to plan the meal. Based on the contributions, Monday, January 9 became Italian Night, when my wife and I enjoyed minestrone soup, garlic bread, salad, pasta with tomato sauce, and grilled sweet Italian sausages. We joined a table of “regulars” who introduced themselves and made us welcome.

Before we tucked in, we bowed our heads while Karen Rego blessed the food and all of us. (The blessing was printed on a small placard on each table.) The food and the conviviality were equally nourishing. And there was plenty for all. Several folks went back for seconds, particularly to the dessert table and the strawberry shortcake.

On Tuesdays, the Chilmark Community Church, with the Reverend Arlene Bodge presiding, hosts a wholesome homemade soup supper, beginning at 5:30 pm. The night we attended, we found a smallish gathering of about 20, mostly church members, who welcomed us outsiders warmly and graciously. Pam Goff, a lay leader in the church, read a blessing before we helped ourselves to two kinds of soup, accompanied by warm, homemade bread and salad, desserts, beverages, and very lively conversation.

Almost before the paper plates were cleared, the well-fed diners began Bananagrams, a crossword-style word game. The seasoned players, who also welcomed us into the game, got in at least 10 rounds before we all headed off into the dark, clear night — Penny and I driving off in the light of a rising moon.

On Wednesdays, West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church, whose pastor is the Reverend Cathlin Baker, hosts a community supper beginning at 5:30 pm. We arrived in time to follow several parishioners bearing covered dishes up the walkway from Music Street into the parish hall. Long tables and folding chairs filled the room, and at the far end, set up in front of the kitchen, there was a most amazing “groaning board” filled with savory dishes prepared by members of the congregation. The tables quickly filled with chattering diners, members of the congregation and regular supper-goers we recognized from our Monday and Tuesday gatherings, 40 to 60 in all. Deacon John Kelleher blessed the food, the assembly, and the community, and table by table we got in line for chow.

Cronig’s donates the meat on which each week’s meal centers, and this was meatloaf week — several varieties of meatloaf baked by church members. I chose the version with spinach, and it was so excellent that I brought home several pieces for sandwiches, as did several other diners. There were lots of leftovers to carry out. Roast potatoes and salads and roasted vegetables, and a spinach/cheese soufflé completed the meal. My plate, and most others, were full. My favorite among the homemade desserts was a tub of vanilla ice cream with a side of warm chocolate sauce.

In by 5:30, out an hour later very well-fed and having made new friends.

On Fridays, Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven is the place to be for a varied and lively menu and crowd. The meal begins at 5 pm, served by the Reverend Rob Hensley and members of the congregation, wearing colorful “Have You Hugged an Episcopalian Today?” aprons.

Nearly always crowded, on our Friday night it was not, perhaps because of extreme cold weather. Again, at our round table, we enjoyed fellowship with other diners, some of whom we remembered from other churches’ suppers. Grace Church’s menu is quite broad, depending on which members of the congregation are cooking on any particular Friday. We missed Bob Huss’s famous chili, but we delighted in a choice of three soups (including especially a fabulous creamed spinach soup), chicken wings, American chop suey, Ted Collins’s jambalaya, ham, meatloaf, turkey potpie, salads, deviled eggs, and a desert table of cakes, pies, and Gloria Wong’s delicious coconut pudding.

Taken separately or together, these communal meals are a great way to enjoy the coldest months.