"The meals are for the hungry first and foremost," says Meg Nielsen, one of the founders of Shared Table in McFarland, "but there are many kinds of hunger."
Shared Table is a new program that serves a free community meal every week. It is for "those who are hungry for friendship and conversation and those who just need a break from the weekday grind of work and meal preparation," says Nielsen. The food is made by a rotating roster of volunteer groups. They and the steering committee decide on a menu, cook and serve the food.
It is not a soup kitchen; it is not a senior citizen meal - although those with low incomes and seniors are welcome, as are singles, and busy families with young children who don't have the time to make a home-cooked meal after work. Shared Table is one of several recently established community meals whose purpose is not just feeding the hungry, but creating community.
When was the last time you sat down with a bunch of total strangers to have a meal? College dining hall, maybe? An assigned table at a wedding where you knew few of the other guests?
Churchgoers have various food-centered gatherings, of course, and membership organizations like the Sierra Club have potlucks and dinner outings. But our culture is more geared to solo dining in our cars than it is to groups talking together over a meal. We are much more the drive-through than the sit-down, the big gulp over the union of company and cuisine.
Dining together as a community is as old as cooking itself. "Once fire became manageable it inevitably bound communities together, because tending the flame required division of labor and shared effort," writes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. Cooking "socialized eating by making it an activity practiced in a fixed place at a fixed time by a community of eaters." The author goes so far as to suggest that the fast and anonymous solo eating we do so much of now is "uncivilizing."
Using a shared meal to build community among neighbors is catching on, almost spontaneously. This past year, community dinners sprang up in Cambridge, McFarland and on Madison's north side. Sun Prairie has hosted a similar meal called Sunshine Suppers since 2010; McFarland and Cambridge have looked to its model.
These community meals serve honest, comforting, familiar foods, the kinds of dishes friends and neighbors bring when a family member is ill or passes away, dishes that comfort and sustain. If there is nothing trendy about them, they are no less heartfelt for it.
With a similar goal, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin jumpstarted a series of "Meet and Eat" food cart nights in the Meadowood neighborhood in the summer of 2012 to improve food access and create an opportunity for neighbors to sit down and talk to each other. These are expected to expand to more neighborhoods in the summer of 2013.
Not all communal dining events are neighborhood-based. Other dinners bring people together over a cause. Sometimes professional chefs cook; sometimes volunteers. Diners pay a fee or make a donation, with proceeds going to a designated charity or a community project. Projects like Soup and Bread, Madison Soup, and Eat for Equity take this approach. The UW-Madison Slow Food chapter does something similar to promote locally grown food.
Not every communal dining project creates a kumbaya moment.
Lisa Veldran, president of the Meadowood Neighborhood Association, has mixed feelings about the Meet and Eat food cart events as a community-builder. "I think it was a big draw because it was a mayor's initiative," says Veldran. "People enjoyed eating at the food carts that typically vend downtown.
"But it was costly," Veldran notes. "It was $40-$50 to feed my family." For that reason, she wonders "how effective it is as a community-building exercise when trying to get people from different socioeconomic backgrounds to mingle."
Meadowood has its own community suppers, a potluck/neighborhood get-together, four times a year: "We have a meal and talk about issues," says Veldran, who sees the events as effective because they're "organic, driven by the neighborhood." The more local an event is, Veldran suggests, the more successful it can be at connecting community members.
Can a bunch of strangers enjoy eating together? It does take a little effort, but sure. The groups like 4-H or Lions Club or neighborhood associations that sign on to sponsor an individual dinner can be a big part of encouraging turnout, and also making newcomers feel at home. "It can be kind of scary," acknowledges McFarland's Meg Nielsen, "going into an unfamiliar situation by yourself."
Here's a sampling of shared meals that have the seemingly simple yet sometimes challenging goal of creating community.
Morale-building: Cambridge Community Cafe
A new dinner that's been quite successful at bringing varied members of the community together is Cambridge's year-old Community Cafe. Wanda Pleshek of the Cambridge Community Activities Program coordinated the free monthly meal, which is "going really strong," says Pleshek. "We have more than 200 people attending."
It started simply with "some talk around town that we should do meals." Yet, Pleshek says, there was a desire to do it "without pigeonholing one group of people." Pleshek herself was new to the area and observes that "if you don't have kids in school, you don't meet people." Furthermore Cambridge, struggling from more than a few store closings on its main street, was looking for a way to strengthen community ties and boost morale.
Pleshek is clearly elated as she says, "It's been phenomenal." In August, the meal was held at Ripley Park and even attracted summer tourists; one dinner was a cookout at the usual location, the village's Amundson Community Center. Pleshek likes the site because there's plenty of space and it isn't a church, which she worries might be off-putting to some.
As the coordinator, Pleshek finds an organization to host for each month and cook for 200. She already has sponsoring groups for 11 months in 2013. "They pay for the food part, and the activities program provides the paper products," she says. Pleshek also lines up live music for each dinner: "Hopefully we can get a grant in 2013."
Pleshek estimates the attendance at any given dinner breaks out roughly evenly among families, single people, seniors and empty-nester couples. "It is equitable, and a really nice blend." She puts Trivial Pursuit cards on the tables as potential ice-breakers and encourages the members of the hosting group to "sit down and chitchat with someone you don't know, try to make a friend." And she thinks it is working: "It's neat to have positive energy in the community."
Pleshek was particularly excited about the menu she planned for the Jan. 3 dinner, beef and pork roasts and mashed potatoes, because these former dinner standards have become special-occasion foods. "People don't make roasts any more - they don't have the three to four hours to cook them," says Pleshek. (Although Pleshek left her position after this interview, director Bridgette Hermanson is equally enthusiastic about continuing the Cafe.)
The potential to turn a life around: Shared Table Community Meal
Shared Table community meal in McFarland began last May. Meg Nielsen and Vicki Holten are on the steering committee.
Holten, the meal coordinator, came up with the name and the welcoming logo of smiling veggies. Volunteers sign up for tasks via the website Signup Genius; Holten uses another website to figure out how much food to make, transforming familiar home recipes to feed 100. The meals are held at McFarland Lutheran, but Shared Table is independent from the church.
At the free weekly dinners, "people do tend to cluster in groups they know. But the service groups who sponsor the meal are getting to know people they might not otherwise," Nielsen observes. "They chat with each other, and that is lovely." Holten and Nielsen feel that too often we underestimate the simple things that have the potential to turn a life around.
Some residents from a local group home have come, people who might have difficulty going out to a restaurant. "They're welcomed, whether they need oxygen or are in a wheelchair," says Nielsen. People who live by themselves have a chance to eat over some conversation. A group informally known as "the bachelors' table" of senior citizens talk through the meal and sometimes have to be gently prodded to leave.
Ultimately, though, Holten points out that they don't know why people come to Shared Table because it is their policy not to ask. "Hospitality, confidentiality, dignity" are the bywords.
A mid-November dinner featured a homey and quite delicious menu of cheesy tuna casserole; a variety of salads including tossed, slaw and cranberry Jell-O; and many different desserts. About 40 people had already formed a line by the time the doors opened at 5 p.m.
While conversation at my table was a little slow, by the end of the meal a tablemate and I were splitting and trading our desserts.
Between small town and big city: Northside Sunday Supper
I discovered Northside Sunday Supper when I drove past a sign for it, stuck in the median on Northport Drive.
The Sunday Supper idea came from Brad Weisinger, director of the Warner Park Community Center; Sue Gleason of the Northside Planning Council; and Dale Matthews of the Northside Farmers' Market.
One of the original goals was to serve a free meal on a night when there were no other meal opportunities. The Warner Park Community Center also was looking for a "program that would be open and welcoming to the community," says Gleason.
Dale Matthews is the chef. A retired small business owner, Matthews also supervises a market-driven brunch at the Northside Farmers' Market.
Matthews remembers neighbors getting together for community meals in the small Indiana town where he grew up. Madison, he observes, is caught between small-town and big-city status, which makes events like community dinners more difficult.
"I wanted it not to have an agenda," says Matthews, especially considering how divisive the political climate has been in the state. He wanted the dinner to focus on neighbors getting together to "eat, chat and let the kids play" - which they do, in the gym, after dinner, while the adults can relax and have coffee.
For the first Sunday Supper in July, he served a menu of one vegetarian chili and one with meat. "I knew I could do that in three hours," he says.
The second Supper in September featured three jambalayas - a seafood, a vegetarian, and a beef and pork combo. Matthews utilized produce left after the weekly Northside Farmers' Market (all vendors donate unsold produce to the River and Lakeview food pantries, as terms of participating in the market). The most recent meal featured hoppin' John, cornbread and collard greens.
What does not get eaten at the Supper is also donated to north-side food pantries. "So it's a win-win," says Matthews. With farmers' market items and other donations, he figures he's not spent more than $75 on any of the meals. (The suppers are free, but donations are accepted.)
Matthews believes the key is to "keep it simple. Let it happen and evolve in the way it goes." Ultimately, he'd love to see the event "downsize the north side" - make it more like a small town.
Four more Sunday Suppers are planned for 2013, with a St. Patrick's-themed menu for March, the up-north stew known as booyah for June, and maybe Italian for September.
Meet the cooks: Slow Food UW Family Dinner Night
Tori Law, a UW-Madison senior and co-director of Slow Food UW, blasts a hole in the idea that the average college dining hall is a place with a lot of communal dining. Looking back on her freshman year, she says, "You don't eat with other people; you're on your own." Having grown up in a large family that always ate together, Law missed that, and found what she was looking for at Slow Food UW. It hosts a lunch cafe on Wednesdays at noon and "Family Dinner" nights on Mondays through the fall and spring semesters.
"Starting out, I met a diverse group of people, faculty members and people from outside the university, too," Law says. Now a senior, she has plenty of friends to sit with at Family Dinner night, but says, "I have tried to sit with people I don't know. It definitely depends on how you're feeling that day." Conversations with strangers "tend to start out food-related. It's a common subject and a focus of the Family Dinner. But it gets more wide-ranging."
When I arrived at 6:30 p.m. to the Oct. 8 dinner, most diners had already joined tables; the crowd hovered around 75. I headed for some empty chairs.
No, the seats weren't saved, and Mary and Rebecca immediately welcomed me to the table. They're friends just out to dinner, and Mary's had been wanting to try the Slow Food Family dinner for over a year. A few minutes later we were joined by Rex, another non-student diner whose daughter is involved with Slow Food UW. He comes to Family Dinner frequently with his wife, who couldn't make it that evening.
This was the dinner where I had the most natural conversation. We talked about state politics and a rare breed of pony raised by one of my tablemates.
Of course, the conversation turned to the meal in front of us, hosted by the First Acre and the Elderberry Hill Farm, both the work of twenty-something farmers who emerged from the kitchen to introduce their food: a potato leek soup, cabbage root veggie slaw, winter harvest vegetable bake, and a dessert of sweet squash bread.
On this night, the soup was a little thin, and the vegetable bake leaned a little too much to bulghur. But the slaw, spiked with horseradish, was excellent, as was the still-warm-from-the-oven squash bread. The positive vibe from the young farmers made the culinary missteps not matter much, especially considering the $5 cost.
Family Dinners can vary greatly, depending on who's cooking. Sometimes an international student will lead a meal of dishes from his or her native land; sometimes local chefs sit in, as Joey Dunscombe of the Weary Traveler and the Underground Food Collective folks have.
Sup and vote: Madison Soup
The bimonthly Madison Soup dinners are less about the soup per se than using the metaphor of nourishment to bring people together to nourish community projects. Madison Soup founder Heather Wentler enlists the help of friends to make two kinds of soup for each event, one vegetarian, one vegan. Precut veggies and lettuce go toward the makings of a salad. Rounding out the menu are homemade French bread and lemonade. The meal becomes more convivial when attendees bring their own beverages (and many do).
Long tables are set up cafeteria-style in the Sector67 space, an atmosphere that suggests high school lunch being held in the shop classroom. (Occasionally the Soups are held at private homes, but the location for the next event, on Feb. 3, is again Sector67.)
Ten dollars, in advance via Eventbrite or paid at the door, goes to fund one of several projects, each of which is presented to the crowd over dinner by eager proponents.
At the Dec. 9 Soup, featuring a roasted cauliflower soup and a roasted garlic and potato chowder, it was no problem striking up conversation with my tablemates. Most people came with friends, but then most were there precisely because they're community-minded, and so breaking the ice was not difficult. After the projects are presented, it's not uncommon to talk about their merits before voting for a favorite.
At the December Soup, 44 attendees awarded $252 to Meg Rothstein, who formed a creative writing group at the Madison Day Shelter. The funds were to go to notebooks, good pens and a public reading, with refreshments and a stipend to each reader.
Hospitality: Holy Wisdom Monastery
Holy Wisdom Monastery offers a special kind of community dining. It's open to all, Tuesday through Saturday, but the staff asks that you reserve your place at lunch or dinner at least a day in advance so the kitchen will know how much food to serve. (Cost is $10 for lunch and $13 for dinner, though payment seems to be a matter of conscience.) The goal is simply to provide hospitality.
The monastery, rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict, cites his philosophy that "All guests are to be received with sincere hospitality, with the courtesy of love." At a shared meal, you might meet staff members, volunteer tour guides, sisters, women living at the monastery for 6-12 months, or visitors on a retreat.
The lunch was for 13 on the day I visited (though they have served for groups as small as six and as large as 90). It was serve-yourself from a short cafeteria line, and featured a root vegetable soup, spinach salad, a salami sandwich and a chocolate macaroon, all made by Barbara Wright, chef at Holy Wisdom and formerly owner and cook at the Dardanelles on Monroe Street.
Before lunch, Sister Mary David led the diners in a brief blessing. Everything was simple but delicious, especially the soup, which could convert a nonbeliever - to root vegetables, anyway. Two round tables seated the diners, and conversation ranged from contemporary baby names, retreats that have recently been held at the monastery, the weather, President Obama, Thanksgiving, and, of course, the food at hand. There was a quiet, contemplative turn to the talk, although it didn't last very long; many members of the community needed to head back to prayer at half past noon.
Wright loves to discuss the eco-friendly kitchen, the orchard, the garden where the monastery grows vegetables, and the produce she canned with volunteer help. She's delighted that here she can put into practice her beliefs about cooking freshly and sustainably.