Winter feasting together

A week of food and fellowship.

The group of the volunteers at the West Tisbury Church supper, from left: Miki Badnek, Vicky Bartels, Candy Lincoln, Penny Winter, Marjorie Peirce, Suzanne Fenn, and Martha MacGillivray. – Photo by Larisa Stinga

Where can you go during an Island winter when there’s no place to go? Where do you find a nourishing, quality meal and good companionship when the rock is cold, gray, and seemingly devoid of people? And where do you find all this for free? Seven of the Island’s churches sponsor community suppers — one for each night of the week — and all you have to do is show up. Two are held in Edgartown, two in Vineyard Haven, one in Chilmark, one in West Tisbury, and one in Oak Bluffs. All satisfy the hunger that rumbles the belly and the yearning for socializing in the quiet months of winter.

The suppers began in the 1980s when three of the churches decided that because of a downturn in the economy, there was a need for free, wholesome dinners for those who were out of work for the winter. They began creating the meals, and soon, as many people were coming for the camaraderie as for the food. The other churches jumped on the bandwagon a few years later, until every night of the week was covered.

Recently, Times contributor Joyce Wagner enjoyed a week of community suppers.

Federated Church, Edgartown

Sundays, 12:30 pm to 2 pm

The weekly Sunday lasagna dinner at the Federated Church, now in its third year, is the only supper held at lunchtime. Serving begins at 12:30, but coffee and tea are available for those who arrive early. Pam Butterick, a petite blond with a ready smile, supervises the volunteers in the kitchen.

Pans of lasagna emerged piping hot from the oven. “We’re always prepared to feed at least 48,” Pam informed me. “And we have a whole freezer full of lasagna. Some of it’s homemade and some of it’s Stouffer’s. We combine them, and we always have a vegetarian one.”

Slabs of garlic bread waited atop the stove. A leafy green salad and a kale salad with a homemade dressing waited on the serving table. Mary Jean Miner, a volunteer, told me that they change salads and desserts frequently. “It’s different every week,” she said. “We have fun.”

A group of regulars — Tom and Elise Thomas, Ethel Chapman, Marissa Salomon, and a woman named Mary — welcomed newcomers to the table. As others arrived, they called out greetings. “Here comes Elliott,” Ethel announced. “Maybe he’ll sit with us. He has good stories.” A young woman and her two children, ages 2½ and 6, settled at the other end of the table. The little girl was a good eater, finishing everything on her plate. The boy —not so much.

The food was plentiful and delicious. As everyone leaned back in their seats, volunteers made the rounds with cookies and homemade gingerbread left over from dessert. The remaining salad, lasagna, and garlic bread were spooned into Styrofoam containers and offered to anyone who would like to take some home. Some were given to specific people to take to neighbors and friends who were not able to get to the dinner.

By the end, approximately 24 people were served onsite. Of those, Pam predicted that about half attended out of need and the others came for the socializing. This year the suppers began on the second Sunday of January and will continue through March. “We decided that because that’s the hardest time for people,” Pam explained. “They’re out of work.”

Members of the Federated Church decided to make their community supper at lunchtime on Sundays because, Pam said, “Sundays weren’t covered. No one was doing it on Sunday. And we’re here! We come for church!”

Old Whaling Church, Edgartown

Mondays, 5:30 pm

Monday night brought the diners around to the side of the Old Whaling Church, where they entered the Baylies Room, a large, noisy hall. While people clamored for seats, eight volunteers — six of them men — in blue Rotary Club aprons hustled around the kitchen, pulling roast pork with mashed potatoes out of ovens. Usually the Methodist congregation of the Old Whaling church cooks and serve the meal, but once a month the Rotary Club handles the food service. When it’s the Rotarian’s turn, members of the Culinary Arts program prepare the entrée at the high school, and volunteers pick it up and take it to the church. The rest of the meal is donated. Tomato soup, raisin bread and butter, and salad with two dressings already waited on the serving table. The dessert table held three kinds of cake, cupcakes, fruit salad, and a lemon meringue pie that I was betting would go fast.

Liz Villard is in charge of the event. She started the evening with announcements, then turned the floor over to Reverend Richard Rego for grace.

I saw familiar faces from Sunday’s supper: Ethel, Mary, Marissa, and Elliott. Other regulars joined them at a table — Dianne Holt, Lolita Duarte, and two women, Elaine and Carol. The young woman from the Federated Church arrived with her two children, and I recognized other faces around the brightly lighted hall.

This Whaling Church meal is one of the longest-running community suppers. This year will be their 23rd season, and they’ve served more than 70,000 meals in their long history. Karen Burke boasted that she’s been coming for 12 years.

Diners are very forthcoming about the community suppers — their favorites and least favorites. Most agree that the Chilmark supper is the least populated because of the distance. Elaine leaned over and confided to me, “Too far, too dark, and too many deer.”

By meal’s end, the Rotarians served approximately 30 dinners. Leftovers were available to take home by request.

Chilmark Community Church, Chilmark

Tuesdays, 5:30 pm

The community supper at the Chilmark Community Church may be distant, but it’s friendly, cozy, and well worth the ride. Although it’s called a “soup supper,” there are other items on the menu. Besides two kinds of homemade soups, chili-mac, macaroni and cheese, devilled eggs, and bread and butter were served. There were four different pies, brownies, and cookies for dessert.

To me, the Chilmark supper seems the most intimate and companionable of the suppers. It’s a smaller venue than the others, and only about 17 people showed up. Pam Goff, the woman in charge, told me, “You caught us on a slow night. Some people are sick and the pastor’s away.”

As expected, the regulars from the previous two dinners didn’t make the trip. Stephanie Brothers, a whirlwind of enthusiasm, shared a table with her 10-year-old daughter, Annabelle, and another charge, Chloe Maley. “Did you know we play Bananagrams after dinner?” she asked me. While one group settled at a round table for conversation, six women gathered around an oblong table and scattered the Bananagrams tiles in the middle. A fast game ensued, with one woman winning most of the rounds.

West Tisbury Church, West Tisbury

Wednesdays, 5:30 pm

The Wednesday night community supper in West Tisbury is the one most discussed by the regulars. It has the most food, the most people, and is the one most likely to accommodate dietary restrictions. The Reverend Cathlin Baker greeted diners at the door, then we proceeded to numbered tables. When our number was called, we formed a line to the serving table. Last Wednesday, the menu featured 15 dishes, including four different breads, two cornbreads (one gluten-free), ham, two kinds of baked beans (one vegetarian), roasted veggies, and lentil soup. Desserts included three kinds of ice cream with chocolate sauce, spice cake, chocolate zucchini cake, fruit salad, and bread pudding.

All the regulars who skipped Chilmark attended, plus many others. Ben and Rose Runner arrived late with their 3-month-old baby, Benjamin David Runner, who seemed not only unfazed by the noise but happy to be the object of attention of the other diners. Other children zipped around the tables in a sugar rush. The little 2½-year-old girl with the excellent appetite charmed everyone she met.

The West Tisbury dinner is also one of the oldest on the Island, one of the three early participants. According to Marjorie Pierce, chair of the church’s Mission Outreach Board, “Each winter we’ve seen an increasing need and increasing participation. Now 80 [dinners a week] is our average. It’s a stretch for our parish hall, but we make it work.”

Due to the need, the suppers, which used to run through March, will now keep going through April.

Saint Augustine’s Church, Vineyard Haven

Thursdays, 5 pm

The turnout at St. Augustine’s community supper was small, but featured special guests who came out on the bitterly cold and iced-over evening: Six students from the National Honor Society at the high school showed up to help serve and clean up.

Gail Burke, major-domo of the event, said she thought the small turnout had to do with the ice, and the fear some attendees have of climbing the stairs.

Those who didn’t attend missed out on penne pasta with homemade meat sauce, meatballs, sausage, beef chili, rolls and butter, coffee, lemonade, and tea. Dessert was ice cream and a chocolate cake donated by the Black Dog.

Perhaps because of the weather, some latecomers straggled in, among them the woman with the two children. Conversations were quiet, and centered around Island gossip. In all, about 25 meals were served. “We usually range from 20 to 40,” Gail told me.

Church employee Joe Capobianco, a large man who appears to enjoy his own cooking, prepared the pasta dishes with the help of Joe Vinci, a volunteer. Mr. Capobianco settled at a table to chat, then left early to take food to a volunteer who was ill. He explained, “We don’t usually pack stuff up to go, but we also don’t say no.” The woman with the two children received a large package to go.

This year, once a month, volunteers from the Hebrew Center will be helping with the serving and clean-up.

Grace Church, Vineyard Haven

Fridays, 5 pm

When people think of food and Grace Church, most will think lobster rolls, but Grace’s was one of the first of the weekly suppers. Last Friday they celebrated the Chinese New Year with Asian dishes and a dragon. Perhaps it’s because it’s the weekend and people want to get out, but the parish hall tends to fill to capacity and beyond. For the past three weeks, volunteers have been serving more than 60 meals per night. Last Friday, extra tables were set up, and still many people sat on the window seats to dine.

A whiteboard featured the menu, which included four soups, lo mein, pasta, jambalaya, fried dumplings, brown and white fried rice, rolls, and bread and butter. Desserts included two kinds of brownies, gluten-free banana bread, cookies, and fruit salad. A volunteer circulated with a bowl of fortune cookies, then peppered the tables with noisemakers. Stephanie Brother’s daughter Annabelle was asked to help with the dragon. “Annabelle has been part of the dragon since she was in preschool,” her mother brags, as we all sat in anticipation of the much-discussed dragon.

Then, to the accompaniment of toy drums and tambourines, a papier-mâché and fabric dragon made its way through the tables, into the kitchen, and back again. Six adult legs and one set of 10-year-old’s could be seen beneath the fabric. The 2-year-old girl screamed her disapproval.

Trinity Parish House, Oak Bluffs

Saturdays, 5:30 pm

Saturday night’s community supper was, perhaps, the most casual. Suitably enough for a Saturday, fare was hot dogs and beans, accompanied by corn chowder, salad, cole slaw, potato chips, and ice cream, all excellently prepared and distributed. Karen Rego, chief cook, estimates that they serve an average of 60 to 70 meals and, of those, only about 30% of participants are there due to financial need. “Especially this time of year,” she says, “[people] need the fellowship. Many live alone.”

Many of Trinity’s entrées are purchased with donations from Cash & Carry or Stop and Shop, and Island Food Products and Stop and Shop occasionally donate groceries. Almost all the regulars attend, presumably because it’s Saturday night and the venue is centrally located. But there’s no denying there’s love that goes into the preparation of the simple food.

“I cook,” Karen told me, “as if everyone was at my home eating.”