Sharon Smith and Margaret Elliott don’t have anything against baked bean and hot dog church suppers. They like them just fine. They just want to do something a little different when it comes to the suppers they help plan at the Monroe Community Church. Instead of macaroni and cheese, how about jambalaya? Why not baba ganoosh, instead of brown bread? Baklava, in lieu of blueberry pie?
For the past five years, Smith, Elliott and a crew of volunteers have planned gourmet suppers, which happen every six weeks in their United Church of Christ fellowship hall. Each dinner explores a different cuisine — Lebanese, German, Greek, Acadian, Cajun, Chinese and countless others. Waldo County area cooks with expertise in different styles create a menu, source ingredients and prepare a four-course seated and served meal for 80 diners of all ages, some from the church and some not.
“We wanted to have a church supper that’s not the same as everybody else’s,” said Smith, who has been volunteering at the suppers since they started in 2008. “We wanted to try some different kinds of foods, make it really special. It’s definitely different from any other church supper I’ve ever been to.”
The impetus for the suppers came from a private dinner some churchgoers held, in which the dining room was decorated to look like a cruise ship. It was dubbed “Dinner With the Captain,” and it was an immediate hit.
“That kind of got the ball rolling,” Elliott said. “It’s just so much fun to decorate, and make the room look really nice, and have it be seated and served like a real restaurant-style dinner. We try to put a lot of thought into it.”
The most recent dinner, held on May 18, featured Thai cuisine prepared by guest chef Ning Sawangjaeng, who is originally from Thailand, and who helps to run a nearby farm with her husband. It wasn’t her first supper — she’s been helping out on and off for about four years — but it is a cuisine near and dear to her heart, naturally. Sawangjaeng and her kitchen crew made coconut beef curry with butternut squash and kale, crispy pork wontons, local green salad with radish and peanut dressing, and coconut ice cream with fried bananas, all served on long tables set with yellow napkins, red table runners and endless pots of jasmine tea.
“I come from Thailand, so I of course love cooking Thai food, but I also like coming here and learning new techniques and different cuisines,” said Sawangjaeng. “And of course the crew is great and everybody is really fun.”
Also a little different from your typical church supper is that diners are welcome to bring a bottle of wine to pass around the table and share. Elliott recalled the daughter of a pastor from a different denomination being both shocked and delighted that both alcohol and more exotic ingredients were allowed at their suppers.
“Once people get over the idea that this is just a church supper, they love the idea,” said Elliott. “People can bring wine if they’d like to. Our church is OK with that. It’s a very social occasion. You can talk to your neighbors and get to know people. We like the fact that is pulls people from all over, too. We get folks from Castine, folks from southern Maine.”
Marge Sheridan has been helping with and attending the dinners since the beginning, and notes that not only do they offer community members a chance to sample a wide array of different kinds of foods, it also provides a much-needed hub for the town of Monroe, which otherwise lacks a central gathering place. In fact, people often are turned away at the door because the seats fill up so fast.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see people regularly when there’s no central gathering place in town, so these suppers give us a chance to get together and relax and talk about our lives,” Sheridan said. “Church suppers do that anyway. This just happens to have really good, really different food.”
The gourmet church suppers at the Monroe Community Church are always at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, and cost $12; it is advisable to make reservations by calling 525-9908 or emailing email@example.com, as they always sell out. The next suppers are a June 29 Cajun meal; the Aug. 17 “Five Mile Meal,” an outdoor dinner in which all ingredients are sourced within five miles of the church; a Sept. 28 harvest supper and food auction; and Dec. 7 Acadian food.