Column: Thanksgiving food for thought

When it comes to church-sponsored community dinners, I suspect the average person has a certain bias that includes thinking such dinners are designed solely for the disadvantaged, not for a simple community gathering of sharing a meal with neighbors.

I say this because I’ve routinely encountered odd reactions from family and friends whenever I’ve shared about how much my wife, Katie, and I enjoyed attending church-sponsored community dinners.

It started with Saint Stephen’s several years back. We were walking our dogs on Main and spied the inviting sign. “Katie, why don’t you run inside and find out how it works while I stay here with the dogs,” I said one year. She came back and reported that the food looked amazing, the dinner was open to the public and free with suggested donation, and the place was packed with people.

We did not attend that dinner, but kept a lookout for future ones.

Over the years, we ended up attending several Saint Stephen community dinners, one of which even made the Ridgefield Press via a photo I snapped of Katie enjoying her plate of yum.

This past week, I was standing in line at a local liquor store waiting to check out with my bottle of Rich Red Blend by Barefoot and two bottles of Black Boss beer from Poland. When it was my turn to check out, the owner asked about my plans for Thanksgiving. “Oh. We signed up for Saint Mary’s CommUNITY Thanksgiving dinner,” I replied.

I was anticipating an odd look or awkward response, but instead he caught me off guard.

“I heard it’s really good,” he said with a beaming smile. Then he went on, “Several people I know raved about it. This is the second year they’re doing it, right?”

“I think so. This is our first time at Saint Mary’s doing a community dinner,” I stated, and then we proceeded to banter a bit about his plans and Thanksgiving in general.

“Thanksgiving is six hours of prep, twenty minutes of chow, and three hours of cleanup,” he offered while handing me my change. To which I nodded smilingly, wished him a “Happy Thanksgiving, and was out the door.

My experiences with church-sponsored community dinners have always been positive. Attending this year’s Saint Mary’s CommUNITY Thanksgiving dinner was perhaps one of the best Thanksgiving dinners ever. And I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing ones, including one after having marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade back in the late 1980s.

There are many benefits to community dinners — e.g., menus featuring a broad spectrum of tastes; opportunity to meet new people; no cleanup; no tips; no taxes; pay what you want pricing. But there is another benefit that did not occur to me until two days post when we took one of our dogs to the vet and got to chatting with the office manager.

“How was your Thanksgiving?” we asked while standing in the waiting room.

“Oh God!” she replied and then proceeded to share a bit about family dynamics.

“My sister likes her wine too much and is an alcoholic, but won’t admit it. Just like past times, she drank too much and got potty-mouthed. I had to leave the room and wait it out. Her kids are 27 and 30 and still live at home. My brother-in-law is bossy and controlling. My mom is 77 with dementia which is a whole other chapter. I wish at times I could divorce my relatives, especially during the holidays. I love them, but what can I say?”

So there you have it, another reason to attend church-sponsored community dinners: no negativity with drunk aunts, uncles or others.

The other thing about church-sponsored community dinners is you don’t have to share their faith per se, but they might inspire your faith in humanity. That is one of the reasons why I said this Saint Mary’s Thanksgiving might have been my best, in that I was so impressed with everybody.

First there was all the donated food — two types of roasted veggies, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberries, turkey, gravy, salad, rolls, pies, cheese cakes, cookies, coffee, cider.

Various local restaurants pitched in including Genoa, Bernard’s, Millilo Farm, and Carluzzi’s who donated a $200 gift card which funded the turkeys. Note my list of benefactors is incomplete as I am going from memory, so sorry for not listing everybody. But suffice it to say I was so impressed to see such a range of local companies participating.

And then there was the warmth of humanity. Ten-plus people volunteered behind the serving tables, and at each station, each one of them repeated a genuine, “Happy Thanksgiving.” By the time my plate was filled and ready to head to our table, my heart was joyous just from the repeated positive wishes for holiday cheer.

But it was perhaps the little people that gave me the most hope. These small voices of children wandered around the large parish hall going up to each table and asking if the guest would like more water, more cider, or more coffee. Other adult volunteers also approached the tables with offers to help get more of this or more of that. Some of the volunteers weren’t even members of the parish, like the gal from Virginia Beach visiting her sister here in town and together they volunteered along with her ninth grade niece.

And to think we almost didn’t attend. One of the arguments for not attending was lack of leftovers, at least that was Katie’s thought as we both love turkey day leftovers. But surprise, surprise. Saint Mary’s sent us home with leftovers and some apple pie.

So later that night, circa 9 p.m., we cracked open the bottle of red wine, microwaved some of our leftovers, and toasted Saint Mary’s parish and the best of humanity. The ability to serve and be served, what an amazing race we are, humans that is, especially when we come together at welcoming events like church-sponsored community dinners.