Have you been to the Monday Community Dinner at First United Methodist Church in Chestertown? You’re invited. You’re missing a real treat if you haven’t been yet. The food is quite good. It’s all fresh and prepared that afternoon by community volunteers. And it’s free, yes, that’s right, free – though donations are accepted.
The church is the big red brick one on the hill with white trim and columns and a tall steeple. There’s lots of convenient parking on Park, Mill, or Calvert Streets. Use the side entrance to the church and come down the stairs to the basement. Tables will be already setup with napkins and silverware. They use real plates and utensils – no paper unless you request one of the take-out boxes, which are recyclable. Dinner is served starting at 5:30. Reservations are not needed but we recommend you get there by at least 6 p.m. to avoid having any of your favorite items run out.
Begun by the Rev. David Ryan in September 2016, the Monday dinners regularly serve between 75 and 100 community members, most of them regulars. The cafeteria-style meals feature a generous choice of main courses, desserts, and beverages. There is a dinner every Monday, even if it’s a holiday, Ryan said.
Voluntary donations help support the meal, which Ryan estimates costs $2 to $3 a serving. Even many of the low-income diners chip in a dollar or two, while others sometimes donate as much as they’d pay in a restaurant. And the “customers” represent all ages and income levels. Ryan said the donations jar typically yields $75-150 toward the cost of the meal.
Much of the food is donated to the church from local farms and gardens, restaurants, and grocery stores. The first time we went, J.R.’s Lemon Leaf Café provided mashed potatoes while some of the vegetables came from the Kent County Middle School garden, and Redman Farms had donated 150 ears of corn on the cob.
The corn, by the way, was “cooler corn.” We had seen coolers full of corn at picnics and reunions before but had never realized it had a recipe. We just thought that corn was cooked in the regular way on the stove then put in the cooler. But no, it turns out you cook the corn right in the cooler! Who knew? You just fill a clean hard-sided cooler (no styrofoam, please) with corn. Pour in boiling water. Close the cooler. Load it in the car. By the time you get to the party, the corn is ready. And the cooler will keep it warm for hours. A quick Google search will reveal lots of recipes, reviews, and discussions of cooler corn. Ours was delicious!
During the school year, the Washington College dining hall donates surplus food. Restaurants and schools often donate food that was prepared but not served. In most cases, the food would have been thrown out if not for the church dinner. College students also help with the preparation and serving when classes are in session. Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown also help with preparation, especially when Pastor Ryan is out of town. Other volunteers set tables, work the cafeteria-style serving line, wash dishes, and make sure everything runs smoothly. All were clearly having a good time.
Preparation begins early in the afternoon, around 1:00 pm when Pastor Ryan and parishioner Cheryl Hoopes arrive. They begin the prep and setup, see what is in the pantry and do all the other things included in planning and preparing a dinner for a hundred people. Ryan joins in the cooking. Cheryl Hoopes, who coordinates volunteers, said that Ryan’s previous parish also had a regular dinner, but the church women wouldn’t allow him to help with the cooking. One of the reasons he started one in Chestertown was so he could get in the kitchen! And he’s a good cook. Just ask his wife!
Recent menus have included roast pork, stuffed peppers, corn on the cob, sauerkraut, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, applesauce, with a selection of cookies, cupcakes, and pies for dessert. Beverages included water and iced tea.
There is a long dessert table each week. And next to the dessert table is the take-home table with bread and vegetables and other items that anyone may pick up as you leave. Some are from people’s gardens; others are items near their expiration dates donated by groceries or bakeries. If you prefer, you can get your meal in a recyclable take away box. The recyclable boxes, Ryan said, are a little more expensive than the more common styrofoam boxes, but he felt that being environmentally responsible was more important than saving a few cents. Only a few people opt to just get a takeaway box and leave right away. Some eat at the church then fill up a box for a family member at home.
While many people sit with friends or family members — there are three- and four-generation families who come regularly — it’s also a good place to make new acquaintances. One volunteer brings his four grandchildren – all under the age of 10 – and the kids help on the clean-up crew. Ryan said the dinner has been an opportunity to meet many people who aren’t members of his congregation, including many from the immediate neighborhood of the church. Now many of them stop and talk to him on the street.
Come and join in. Any Monday at 5:30 pm. Perhaps you’ll become a regular or a volunteer, too. Tell ’em the Spy sent you!
Photos by Peter Heck and Jane Jewell