CHERRYFIELD — On Sunday afternoons, the Weald Bethel Community Center has the feel of an old-fashioned family dinner.
People gather in the Maine Seacoast Mission’s community center off Route 1 to socialize, taking in the aromas coming from the kitchen. Some sit on upholstered furniture in a setting that resembles a cozy living room. Others gather around one of the round tables where they will eat. Many stand and chat.
In a large kitchen around the corner from the common area, cooks are busy preparing the meal, whose menu is not set ahead of time. No disposable dishes or utensils are used here — only everyday china and real flatware. After the Sunday buffet-style dinner, the dishes are done by hand.
Among the Mission’s programs, the meal is a community effort known as Down East Table of Plenty, a weekly event, designed to feed both the body and the soul. There is no charge.
“It’s not a soup kitchen,” said Bonnie Johnson of Cherryfield, who came up with the idea for the community meal. “Need is as much about emotions as it is about food.”
The meal has been served every week without fail for nearly nine years. It’s even served when an important holiday such as Christmas falls on a Sunday.
The Maine Seacoast Mission provides the location but is not otherwise directly affiliated with the effort, said Wendy Harrington, an Addison resident who serves as the mission’s director of service programs.
“It’s community-owned,” she said. “It is self-supporting through volunteers and donations.”
She credits Johnson with its success.
“Bonnie is a person within our community who people look up to,” Harrington said. “People are drawn to her.”
“There was a spark and all the sudden the spark became the flame,” said Johnson, who described the meal as being the product of a loosely affiliated group of volunteers. Down East Table of Plenty has no board and no staff.
Only one person, Nicole DeBarber of Steuben, is paid to be there every week as a representative of the Maine Seacoast Mission, said Harrington. But DeBarber does not plan the meal or schedule volunteers. Her function is to provide assistance and make sure volunteers can find what they need in the kitchen.
Both Harrington and Johnson said the meals come together as if by magic. Each week, a different group serves as host, preparing and serving the food.
At the Oct. 6 dinner, Steuben residents Sepp Huber and Sheila Unvala served as hosts, cooking up a menu based on the Native American concept of the three sisters — corn, beans and squash. Eaten together, the three foods provide as much protein as a steak, Huber said.
The pair also made a fruit salad and green salad using produce donated by Bayside Shop ’n Save in Milbridge.
Because there was more produce than needed for one salad, the pair sautéed fresh mushrooms and roasted peppers and fresh asparagus in the oven.
Johnson and Harrington said Bayside donates produce, along with breads and desserts, every week. The hosts never know what they’re going to have to work with, so they improvise, coming up with ways to use the ingredients they are given.
The hosts are offered $150 to pay for the ingredients necessary to make their main course. This eliminates any financial barriers that might otherwise prevent someone from cooking for everyone, Johnson said. The money comes from donations made by community members.
Hosts never have to worry about making enough because people invariably show up with what Harrington calls “bonus dishes.”
On Oct. 6, Donna Merkel of Gouldsboro brought homemade beans and coleslaw left over from a bean supper the night before at the Prospect Harbor United Methodist Church.
“[Church members] were so happy to know it was being used,” she said, placing the donated food into cookware and serving dishes she found in the Weald Bethel kitchen. “The only promise I made was they’d get their containers back.”
The church also had leftover hot dogs, so those were added to the beans, which were offered along with ham and beans and vegetarian bean dishes made by Huber and Unvala. Freshly baked corn muffins and roasted squash rounded out their menu.
“I love to cook,” said Unvala. “And I love to feed people.”
Some of the other bonus dishes of the day included homemade macaroni and cheese and a spicy sauerkraut dish.
Johnson said the bonus dishes are highly appreciated and take the pressure off the hosts to make sure there’s enough food for a crowd that numbers anywhere from 70 people on up.
Leftovers are always free for the taking. Volunteers wash containers such as the plastic boxes in which fruit and vegetables come and offer those to guests for taking home. Any extra produce not used to prepare the meal also is given away.
“No one will go home without food,” said Johnson. “We will make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if we have to.”
In the event that the group doesn’t have a host for a particular night, volunteers bring in their favorite dishes, Harrington and Johnson said. Usually, however, those who come to eat regularly eventually want to host.
“The focus is on the positive,” said Johnson. “Come here and you’ll get fed one way or the other.”
“People don’t come for the food,” said Harrington, adding people who might not otherwise talk to each other become friends. “They come to be together.”