In a rural area, getting to know your neighbours can take a bit of effort. Sometimes it takes a special reason to get together and chew the fat, and few things do the trick better than that longstanding maritime (and rural) tradition – the community supper.
As home cooks and chefs around the world know, the simplest ingredients are often all that’s needed for a successful – and delicious – outcome. When it comes to community suppers, the only essential ingredients are neighbours, food and a sprinkle of imagination.
Community suppers come in all shapes and sizes, from supper clubs the size of a large dinner party to celebrations for several hundred people. Regardless of the size, the events are a great way to encourage a cooperative spirit. Smaller groups allow for a more intimate gathering; however, larger ones have the advantage of getting many stakeholders together in one place.
What’s more, community suppers are an excellent opportunity for contemporary homesteaders to flaunt their DIY genius. Share your heritage tomatoes, blackberry relish, and Mason jar chandeliers with the friends and neighbours who will appreciate them most.
Ready to start organizing? Use this checklist of tips and tricks to make your next community supper a big success.
Where to have your supper
Of course a community supper can be held in your home (or, weather permitting, in the garden), but if you need more room or simply prefer a public space, here are some good choices:
- Community centers
- Schools and universities
- Fire halls
Although churches have been the traditional gathering spot for all manner of community events, they are not ideal for suppers. While many churches have great facilities, some people might not feel comfortable in a religious space, for a variety of reasons. Being truly welcoming means finding a neutral space that works for everyone.
For similar reasons, it’s not a good idea to meet in a drinking establishment. Not even for a planning meeting.
Go posh or potluck?
How fancy should a community supper be? Here are a few rules of thumb. Go upscale when food is the main feature, when hosting a special event, or when raising funds for a person or institution in your community. Tone it down when the focus is including everyone in the community, or when your event repeats regularly. There’s no sense in breaking the bank unnecessarily just to get together and have a good time.
Here are a few cardinal rules to keep in mind to make sure your event is primed for success:
- Get carried away with a theme. It’s fine to have one, especially if you are looking to add some diversity to frequent get-togethers, but keep the focus on community and enjoying good food. That’s a guaranteed hit with everyone, every time.
- Overly program your event. Keep any speechifying down to a dull roar! Leave plenty of space for relationships to develop organically.
- Wait too long to start planning. The bigger the meal, the sooner you’ll need to get organized—start with making a lot of lists. Make a list of all the tasks that need to be done, a list of known volunteers, and a list of other potential volunteers, and then match people with the tasks. Make a timeline for when it all needs to get done while you’re at it.
- Make a special effort to get together with as many people as possible within a few kilometres of your home. The more local your network, the better.
- Use a cross-generational approach to publicize your event. You can go old school and pin up a notice on the corkboard at the grocery store, go high-tech with a notice on Kijiji, or, even better, a bit of both.
- Choose dishes or themes inspired by what local farmers have to offer or what is growing in abundance on your own property. Try to provide at least one main dish that works for people who are vegan or gluten-free (such as Community Stew, below).
- Share recipes! There’s no better memento of the evening.
Lastly, have a great time! Acts of friendship and joy, both expected and unexpected, happen when neighbours break bread. Talk, laugh, and – above all – don’t stop introducing yourself to newcomers. You never know who you’ll find.
Elisabeth Bailey is a writer, educator, and community activist in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Her books include ‘A Taste of the Maritimes‘ and ‘Maritime Fresh‘. When she is not cooking, gardening, or writing professionally, she’s cooking, gardening, and writing for fun.
RECIPE: Community Stew
This recipe is terrific with fresh vegetables in late summer, but everything in this dish can be made from dried or frozen produce you fetch out of the pantry any time of year. It’s easy to make this dish vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. Multiply as many times as you like to serve a crowd. If you wish, you may divide the stew to add non-vegetarian ingredients to one half while leaving the other as is.
- 8 cups vegetable stock
- 8 cups chopped assorted vegetables, bite-sized pieces (any combination you like or that the garden offers)
- 3 cups dried beans, soaked overnight (I use Jacobs’ Cattle Beans—the heritage bean of the South Shore of Nova Scotia)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
Combine all ingredients but chopped vegetables, cover, and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 ½ hours or until beans are nearly cooked through. Add vegetables and any of the flavouring ingredients listed below, return stew to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, 30-45 minutes more or until vegetables and beans are cooked through to taste.
Optional ingredients you may wish to add–stick to one or two:
- ½ cup of pesto (traditional basil, other herb, or scape)
- 4 tablespoons Sriracha or other hot sauce
- A bottle of good quality beer (The darker the better! Don’t use a beer you wouldn’t drink yourself.)
- A cup or two of wine
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice (not if using beer or wine)
- ½ cup tomato paste
- ½ cup soy sauce or tamari (if using, don’t use salt in recipe)
- several dashes of cocktail bitters (really!)
- 4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
- Herbs to taste, up to 1/3 cup fresh chopped or 2 tablespoons dried. It’s hard to go wrong with rosemary and thyme. Parsley, of course, goes with everything.
- Up to 2 tablespoons spices, such as 2 tablespoons chili powder, 1 tablespoon paprika, etc.
- 1 cup minced caramelized onions