Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Philanthropic Eating

My Farmer-Architect and I have been doing a lot of philanthropic eating the past few weeks. Like most folks who support these charitable gastronomic venues, we do it to support the cause and not for the epicurean delights. Let’s face it if you’re going to the VFW Pork Feed, the name alone tells you that gourmet subtlety won’t be on the menu.

My earliest experience with philanthropic eating was at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Raubsville, Pa. This small congregation , where I was baptized and spent my formative spiritual years, supported itself with community dinners. They were held once a month and alternated between ham dinners one month and turkey the next. The sanctuary would quickly fill as hungry Lutherans and others from Raubsville and the surrounding country farms waited patiently for spaces to free up at the tables in the fellowship hall downstairs. Steeped in with the ambiance of Sunday worship – the stained glass, worn hymnals, hard wooden pews, and the majesty of the altar – were the soul-satisfying aromas of roast turkey, fresh mashed potatoes, candied sweets, giblet gravy, and the ever present peas and carrots. And no matter how full you were after the main course, you always had room for pie or cake, fresh baked by the Lutheran Church Women. The congregation supported itself for decades on their community dinners, although our family didn’t go very often after we transferred to another church closer to our home on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. I suspect much of the dinner succumbed to convenience and cost savings as the years went by. Instant mashed potatoes, gravy from a jar, and so forth.

So in Pennsylvania and New Jersey we had our community dinners. Out here in South Dakota, we have ‘feeds.’ A name that no doubt reflects the pioneer farming tradition of the upper Midwest. But try as hard as I might, the name conjures up visions of sitting around tables set-up in the feedlot back beyond the barn.

My first South Dakota Feed came perilously close to realizing this vision when my friends invited me to join them at the Ramona, SD Volunteer Fire Department Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed. I was not so na├»ve that I didn’t know what rocky mountain oysters were, and it was a not foregone conclusion whether I would eat any or not. I didn’t decide until the split second before they hit my plate, as the spoon was poised in mid-air. “No thank you.” I declined. Instead I settled on the baked beans and the chislic, another South Dakota dish new to my palate.

No matter, you go to these events for the convivial social atmosphere. I recall from experience at the Ramona Fire Hall numerous inquiries along the lines of “How are the nuts this year?” or “They’re just like Chicken Nuggets.” Hmmm – I don’t think so.

I recall from my years living in West Virginia, the Preston County Buckwheat Festival and supporting the Kingwood Volunteer Fire Department who produced truly authentic buckwheat cakes, top quality pork sausage, and maple syrup produced at local Preston County farms. My group of friends considered the Buckwheat Festival a competitive event and each year bets were made on who could eat the most cakes. Quantity consumed was only the first part of the competition. Sustainability was the second. If you lost your cakes on the Ferris wheel, walking through the cattle barns or on the drive back home you lost. Sustainability is a real challenge on a 30 mile drive up and down curvy mountain roads in West Virginia with a bellyful of buckwheat cakes.

My Farmer-Architect and I were on the serving side during the Steam Threshing Jamboree in late August of this year. We worked with the Prairie Village Ladies Auxiliary serving breakfast. The Ladies Auxiliary has a predominantly senior citizen membership. Clearly these ladies had been serving the Jamboree breakfast for decades. However, they are not above using new technology to help ease the work. Large roasters, a staple of any philanthropic food event, were everywhere in the kitchen. The ladies on the pancake line discovered a roaster really keeps large quantities of hotcakes hot. Although, they discovered, Styrofoam plates don’t hold up well in a roaster. The sight of melted Styrofoam sandwiched between 2 pancakes gives new meaning to the term “short stack.”

Two weeks ago we went to the Pork Feed for the Madison Volunteer Fire Department and a Pancake Feed at St. Thomas Catholic Church. In just a few minutes we’re heading off to the Kiwanis Feed at the City Armory. Mostly the Armory is used as an athletic venue these days. I don’t know what’s on the menu but whatever it is; for sure it will be seasoned with the visions of dirty gym socks, good friends, and most importantly a good cause.

Pumpkins, Pumpkins, Everywhere -----

. . . . . and not a single one in a pie. It was all aboard the Pumpkin Train at Prairie Village on Saturday. An event in the planning for the past three months, the Pumpkin Train exceeded everyone’s expectations for participation. Five dollars bought you a ticket to pick a pumpkin for the pumpkin patch at Prairie Village. If you’re age 12 or less. Otherwise you got a free ride on the Prairie Village railroad and the chance for vicarious joy watching your kids find their most perfect pumpkin ever.

This was the first year for the Pumpkin Train. The event was a fund-raiser for restoration of Chapel Car Emmanuel. When I met with the Pumpkin Team planning committee for the first time, I said “We need to keep it simple.” I wanted a few games for the kids to play while they waited their turn to board the train. “If we get 50 kids this first year, I’ll be happy,” I told the Team.

The final count – 395 tickets sold. About 800 train riders. We started with 235 pumpkins. Most we grew in the Village patch – some were donated. After the first train load it was clear we were going to have call Pumpkin 911. There were already another 100 people waiting in line and we were only 30 minutes into the event that was scheduled for four. We bought out one farmer, then we bought out another farmer who had his truck set up at the corner convenience store. In the end every child got a pumpkin and we had a dozen or so left in the patch.

The games we had going were a huge success. Pumpkin Bowling, Scarecrow Relay Races, Halloween Bingo, and face painting. On the train there was Pumpkin Caroling led by Good Witch Sandy.
We ran out cider, we ran out donuts, we sold all the candy left in the Village Gift Shop. We made another trip into town and hit the various dollar stores because we ran out of prizes for the games.

We won’t know the net proceeds for another week. But I think it's safe to say that the Chapel Car Restoration Fund swelled like a milk-fed pumpkin. And the Pumpkin Train will roll again next year.