Building Community One Meal At A Time
By Anne Pyburn Craig
Communal meals undoubtedly got started long before recorded history, with people collecting what they’d hunted and gathered around the fire. Over the millennia, all kinds of variations and embellishments have emerged; some form of breaking bread together has gone on in every time and culture.
In the United States, as industrialization and urbanization picked up steam, gathering to eat became the province of extended families, religious organizations, and the social clubs—Elks, Rotaries, Jaycees and so on—that flourished in the 20th century. As membership in those organizations continues to decline into the 21st, the desire to gather and break bread hasn’t gone anywhere, as Doug Cullen of Accord discovered last February when his cabin fever led him to talk his friend Scott Anderson into hosting a potluck dinner.
“I moved up here from Long Island seven years ago wanting a more farmy life, and because it’s beautiful here everywhere you turn,” he says. “But it was February, freezing, and dark. Where Scott lived was a group living situation—we already had a pretty tight circle of friends into farming and community living—and around 40 people showed up that first time.”
It was the perfect antidote to winter blues. “Around 8 or 9 o’clock I found myself saying how glad I was, how grateful, and where will we do this next week?” Cullen remembers. “And people just responded, and someone yelled out the name Winter Wednesdays. I think it’s working so well because it’s something people naturally want to do; we’re just giving it a name and place. It just keeps going. We’ve had 30 dinners now, and only two or three times have we hit the same place twice.”
For a brief time, the day of the week changed and the name was Tender Tuesdays; they’re back to midweek now, and Wandering Wednesdays is the name. At each get-together, someone will bring someone they just met, or a family member visiting from out of town. Typically, between 20 and 50 people turn out, bearing food to share and open hearts.
“It never gets dull,” says Anderson, who relocated from Los Angeles to Woodstock in the late 1980s, and then to the Rondout Valley a few years ago. “There are always new people. Some become regulars, some you never see again, some show up occasionally. I’ve been around a lot of those things and seen a lot of them fade, but this is gathering and always has a dynamism; new people always bring new contributions. A lot of these people are already friends and bring their friends, neighbors or family, and it becomes a big interconnected web on the ground, face to face. When my brother visited, he got to meet all my friends just by coming to this. People wanted an antidote to that feeling of separation, to living on Facebook. When we get together it’s a joy, and there are very rich conversations that go on.
“There are times when I cook and go all out,” Anderson continues. “Last July 4th I did a family recipe that took three quarters of a day, and other times I just grab a pie at the store. Sometimes we get a lot of the same thing. But it’s pure potluck; no one knows what anyone’s getting. But that’s potluck! Food, people, you never know. It’s an adventure and a phenomenon.”
Wandering Wednesdays have, Cullen says, just enough organization to be viable without becoming onerous. He initially started a Facebook page, but decided an email list had a homier feel. That list has grown into a spreadsheet with 320 names. “They’re all personal connections, all people who are excited to come out to these,” he says. “We started with contact info and it became a sharing of services, events, lessons, help-wanted, housing, all kinds of things people wanted or were offering. I’ve voluntarily put myself in the center, and now people are constantly emailing me stuff. And people have found jobs and places to live, gotten more participation in what they’re doing.”
Margaret Decker has been attending the Wednesdays from the first. She moved to Kingston in junior high, and says the experience “made me fall back in love with this area. It’s an incredibly heartfelt and organically grown community.” A nurse practitioner, she believes the get-togethers offer the kind of healing that goes deep and lasts. “Community is the only real security we ever have in uncertain times of unpredictability and transition, whether it’s personal or social,” she says. “I see it in patients: what makes people well is having someone bring them to treatment, someone to take them home, someone to look in on them and be beside them,” she says. “If something happens to me, I know my community would come through with enough to get me back on my feet.”
Cullen says there’s a balance to be struck between organization and spontaneity. Each week’s email includes a message from the host with directions and any special requests: no dogs, please, or bring your own pumpkin carving knife if you’ve got one. “With a new house every week, nobody gets worn out,” he says. “Potluck means no one person is responsible; it’s very participatory, which extends to clean-up. I’ve found the best approach is not to wait till everyone’s there to eat. Six, seven o’clock rolls around, there’s food there, you just eat, and more food shows up around eight or nine. It takes the pressure off, and you’re not waiting until ten o’clock to eat.”
There is one brief moment of general centering. “In the middle of dinner I stop and sound a singing bowl and make a few announcements, and anybody who wants to share something can, but without the pressure of a formal ‘go round.’” he says. “We keep it brief and celebratory. I don’t want it to be too much like a meeting, more of a brief shoutout. I like to keep it light and keep it moving.”
Depending on the host, there may be a planned presentation, skill share or theme. “We had a pirate party recently,” says Anderson. “Sometimes we’ll have a work party if we’re meeting on a farm,” says Decker. “And people come out for each other’s events, which is huge in the creative world. We build each other up and make our shared vision real.”
Cullen, who operates itsapizzatruck as a catering business, isn’t looking so much to expand the Wandering Wednesdays list; 20 to 50 guests is about as many as a typical home can comfortably hold. What he’d like to see is other, similar groups forming, and he thinks others would find it easier and more rewarding than they might think.
He admits he may be something of a natural. “I’ve loved dinner parties forever. I’ve been a baker for a very long time, so I have to have people around to eat the bread I’m making, right? But this has a life of its own.”
For information on organizing a weekly potluck series of your own, email firstname.lastname@example.org.