It’s safe to say that the cheesy, bite-sized crab canapes were a big hit with the people gathered at Linda Stoddard’s home in Gorham on a recent Friday night. But the jumbo shrimp, three to a skewer, and the homemade bruschetta weren’t far behind. This feast of appetizers was the first course of the annual progressive dinner at the condominium complex where I live.
For the past four years, residents of Ridgefield Condominums, a 55-plus community in Gorham, have taken turns opening their homes to between 30 to 55 of their neighbors for a night of food and conversation. The annual progressive dinner started out as a three-course meal with an hour of appetizers and cocktails at one house, followed by dinner at another house, and capped off with dessert and coffee or tea at a third location. It has evolved into just a two-course festival of appetizers and dessert. This year’s event saw 55 people, more than half the residents of the development, get together.
“It’s a wonderful way to meet people,” said Stoddard, who moved into the community last October and shared appetizer duties with three of her neighbors that night.
“I’ve really gotten to know people so much better,” said Mary Voyer, who takes some credit for the genesis of the progressive dinner four years ago. “People swap recipes and find out things about their neighbors they never would have known.”
Potluck suppers and old-fashioned bean suppers at the local church are nothing new – especially here in New England. But with their kids grown up and moved away, 50-somethings who have downsized and moved into condominium communities like this one in Gorham are finding creative, fun and unusual food-themed gatherings to help them get acquainted and stay connected with their new neighbors.
While lots of communities might have the desire to get to know their neighbors, it takes a committed group of energetic, like-minded people to make it happen on such a grand scale. As Voyer recalls, the progressive dinner idea grew out of her desire to meet her neighbors in the building across the street. Another neighbor offered to host dessert. Judy Ringo, the head of the community life committee in charge of welcoming newcomers to the community four years ago, remembers thinking that a progressive dinner would be an excellent way to get new people acquainted with each other in the slowly growing community.
That first year the 40 or so people who signed up were placed, sort of randomly, into several groups and sent to one of several homes for appetizers and drinks. For dinner, people met up with another randomly selected group at someone else’s home, and with yet another group at another home for dessert.
“By all accounts, it was an overwhelming success and made us all decide to do it again,” said Susan Sedenka, who currently co-chairs the community life committee with Deb Furlong.
Since then, Sedenka, Furlong and others have offered up even more creative ideas for gathering together what is – by all accounts – a food-centric community. One piece of evidence of just how food-centric people are is the community garden, which a handful of residents lobbied for several years ago. Set smack in the middle of a wide expanse of common ground, it is a gathering place all summer long for people to talk about the weather and how things are growing, and to swap recipes for tomato sauce and rhubarb pie while they pull their weeds.
But gardeners and non-gardeners alike look forward to the plethora of food-themed events the community life committee plans each year. Besides the annual progressive dinner, the committee oversees a holiday party that has outgrown volunteers’ living rooms and is now held off site. An annual summer block party is less of a food fest and more of a traditional Friday night happy hour, complete with coolers and lawn chairs and snacking foods.
The fall “soup-a-bowl” is a chance to mingle outside before the air gets too crisp and taste a wide variety of homemade soups from a lineup of 15 to 20 crock pots spread out on tables in the courtyard. The December cookie swap (held on two different days in two different locations so as not to leave anyone out) is a big hit for obvious reasons. For the price of a tin of your favorite holiday cookies, you get to take home an incredible assortment of scrumptious goodies. In addition to these annual events, bike rides (followed by lunch, of course) are also organized from time to time. A monthly book group is as much about the wine and cheese as it is the book.
“I do think our community is unique. I’ve heard from residents in several other condo developments that they wish they had the same type of community life we do,” said Sedenka. “It’s amazing because we have a diverse group of residents.”
While the social events provide outlets for food and fun, Sedenka says the biggest benefit has been the building of a sense of community. Though we have all come from somewhere else, she says there is a sense that people care and are looking out for each other.
“I truly believe that folks in our neighborhood know that if they ever are in need, there are people they can call for help at any time,” she says.
(from the Portland Symphony Orchestra cookbook, circa 1980, courtesy of Linda Stoddard)
1 jar Old English cheese
1?2 teaspoon Lawry’s salt
1?4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 stick butter, softened
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 can Alaskan crabmeat, drained
3 English muffins
Mix cheese, salt, garlic powder, butter and mayo. Fold in crabmeat. Spread on 6 English muffin halves. Place on cookie sheet and cover with foil or plastic wrap. Freeze overnight (or longer). When ready to use, cut each muffin into quarters while frozen, place under broiler while bubbly and brown.