One of the big traditions up here in rural New England is the Community Supper. Almost every weekend in late winter, harvest, and game season, there are a wide variety of community breakfasts and dinners, sponsored by a wide variety of local organization, churches, fire departments, and clubs, all of which provide a good way to meet a good cross-section of local society, as well as have a good hearty meal. While there are many such local dinners, however, quality really can run the gamut from “cheap spaghetti dinner” up to “homemade top-notch feast”.
Around here, the granddaddy of them all is the Hartland (VT) Congregational Church ("The Brick Church", distinguishing it from the white-painted Unitarian church down the road), who throws what's known as the "Hartland Famous Roast Beef Supper". In an area where most every church this time of year is sponsoring some sort of dinner, with a good number of them having roast beef, it takes a bit of chutzpah to proclaim your particular supper to be “famous”, but they do rise to the challenge and provide one of the area’s better (and most caloric) dinners. But they’ve been doing it since approximately WWII, and doing it well:
They run these every winter (and occasionally in the fall), this year running on Saturday evenings from 5 pm til the meat runs out, from January 19th through Feb 22nd. Like I do at least once every winter, I rounded up a bunch of friends and coworkers, and this year we again descended on the Hartland Community Church. The lines, however, start early
. It's not unusual for the line to start forming at 3pm, and if you aren't already in line by 4pm, you might not make the first seating (the basement holds about 80 people at a time, and after the first round gets seated, it's often 45 minutes until the next table is seated). The deal is $14/person ($7 for children, unless they are really young, in which case they get comped) gets you a seat at the table all-you-can eat roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy by the pitcher, green beans, rolls, cole slaw, and pickles,all served family style. And a slice of pie (16 varieties this time), although those are one per person (as my coworker Jed described it, "It's $14/slice for pie, but it comes with all you can eat roast beef supper!").
The beef is top-quality, they take full rib roasts (you can peek in the kitchen from the driveway behind the church) and slice them thin into giant platters of meat for each table. They tend to opt towards serving the meat on the rarer end of medium-rare, but for those that prefer their meat more well done, the staff will happily serve up a supplemental platter of medium-well or well-done beef on request. Add in some hand-mashed potatoes (no instant stuff here), gravy by the pitcher, some pickles, some green beans, and some of their excellent cole slaw (I usually don’t like cole slaw with raisins, but they do something to it here to make it really shine), you can easily assemble a bountiful feast on a plate.
But you have to be very careful to not overdo it too much, since you have to save room for pie. Aside from the vast steaming piles of fresh-sliced roast beef, the other attraction at the Hartland Famous Roast Beef Supper is the selection of pies. I strongly suspect that for the week prior to each Supper, local families are working in overdrive making pies, since one whole corner of the basement is filled with pies tightly packed in little racks:
Hartland prides itself on having a good variety of pies, handing out a pie menu after they clear the main course plates. Show up early, and you’ll have more than a dozen different pie varieties to chose from (conversely, show up late and you’ll only have two or three, I think the pies dictate when they’ve sold out more than anything else). This time, I opted for the cherry pie:
But you never know what else is on the list:
So this year was a success, like most other years. Unfortunately, I'm concerned that this tradition is dying. The Hartland Congregational church has a declining membership, and with that, it's been taxing the church members a lot to put the event on. When I came to the area, they served 10 times a year (9 in the winter, 1 in the fall). Now, this winter is just 6 suppers in the winter, and fall is touch-n-go. I've even heard rumors of them canceling the dinners. So I always round up a serious posse to go each year (this year, we filled two tables).
So, what's going on for church basement suppers around your neck of the woods?