CHERRYFIELD, Maine — A series of simple Sunday suppers, cooked by volunteers and served on cloth tablecloths and with linen napkins, are working a bit of magic in the Cherryfield and Milbridge area.
Over meatloaf and potatoes, gelatin salads and homemade brownies, strangers sit and share a meal — one of the most intimate activities of all — and along the way, they become friends.
“You can feed your belly while you feed your soul,” Morna Bell of Milbridge said Sunday afternoon, settling in before leher plate of food at The Downeast Table of Plenty.
“This was our dream,” Bonnie Johnson, one of the organizers with the Maine Sea Coast Mission, said as she bustled about greeting guests at the door.
The Downeast Table of Plenty has been operating since last December, and has become one of the most popular — and appreciated — venues in town. The meals are free (or donations can be dropped in a box at the door), live music is mandatory, and laughter is a requirement.
Up to 100 people have turned out for the suppers, held at the Sea Coast Mission’s EDGE Center, but the average attendance is 50 to 80. The suppers are open to anyone in Washington County, but they pull mostly from the surrounding towns of Cherryfield, Milbridge, Steuben and beyond.
Although the meals are free, Johnson said this is no soup kitchen.
“Our intent was to create a gathering place, where people could eat, hear music and visit,” Johnson said. “Part of the feeling we wanted to create is that the veil is very thin between those being served and those serving.”
This Sunday, it was the Cherryfield Congregational Church’s turn to provide the meal, and while they served up the shepherd’s pie, meatloaf, vegetarian soup, salad and assorted desserts, Tom and Beth Flaherty of Milbridge played and sang music in the background.
Johnson said eight groups have signed up already to provide meals, each volunteering once every other month. “My ideal, of course, would be to have 52 groups so each only had to provide one Sunday a year,” Johnson said. Local businesses, churches and civic groups either bring their meals to the EDGE Center or cook the meal in the EDGE kitchen.
And each group is getting a distinct reputation for its cooking. “When Mano en Mano comes, with their fabulous Mexican and Latino foods, you can’t find a seat here,” Johnson said.
“This is a real community program,” she said, “a very eclectic group. It provides us all with an ability to serve our community in a unique and meaningful way.”
She said the sense of belonging is very important to the guests.
“Some of the older people have no family left, and this group at the supper becomes their family,” she said. “They particularly love to see the children.”
As the meal wound down, the music picked up. Pat Sharp of Milbridge opened her sketchbook and began capturing the faces of the diners. “This is clearly an old-fashioned sense of community,” she said. Several women began dancing to the music, laughter at the tables increased, and conversations deepened.
“We all feel so blessed in our lives,” Johnson said. “We just wanted to share that. As a community, we really need each other.”
The Downeast Table of Plenty is held at the Sea Coast Mission, U.S. Route 1, Cherryfield, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. each Sunday afternoon. For more information or to volunteer, call Johnson at 546-6101.