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Supper Club: A couple of eating evangelists share their devotion to church chow 

click to enlarge Larry and Guyla LaFrance - JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman
  • Larry and Guyla LaFrance
Ireland is better known for Guinness than gourmet food, but that didn’t stop the masses from coming out for corned beef and cabbage at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Richmond. Actually, a pint would have gone a long way to wash down the salty gray meat and boiled potatoes. But a new priest had recently abolished the alcoholic element — for years, a half-keg of green beer was an essential ingredient in this annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner.

Food is only a part of the Vermont tradition of ensemble eating in church basements. Historically, it was a way to socialize and also raise money for “things like helping the bell choir go to the national competition,” says Vermont historian Lilian Baker Carlisle. The ladies’ aid society cooked whatever was in season, and the proceeds went to supplement the pastor’s salary or to fix a leaky roof.

Over the years, fundraising meals expanded beyond the church to support local schools, fire and rescue squads, and other nonreligious endeavors. But it’s still a way to connect over cheap cuisine. “There are a declining number of opportunities to reinforce who we are as a community,” says state archivist Greg Sanford, “…where citizens gather face to face in a relaxed, informal setting.”

Most of the customers at Our Lady predated concepts of “fast-food” and “to go.” It was definitely an older demographic dishing it out — and taking it. The Carpenters came all the way from Colchester to dine among the shamrocks. “We have nothing else to do,” joked Glenna, who like many of the elder eaters here is retired. The Carpenters go to about eight suppers a year, including the oyster stew in Barnard, covered-dish dinner in Greensboro and the firemen’s chicken barbecue in Lincoln.

One couple stood out among the seniors — a fiftysomething pair that was too young and too trim to look like regulars. The woman had auburn hair and the man wore a neat, dark beard in the Amish style. Turned out they were indeed avowed church-supper seekers. “We get papers from all over the place just to find them,” the man said. “We’ve been going to a church supper almost every Sunday since 1968, sometimes even two a weekend.”

One week later, I was in the backseat of Larry and Guyla LaFrance’s truck, riding through a late March snowstorm to a “real nice” covered-dish church supper in a small town about 30 miles northeast of St. Albans. I had explained over the phone my anthropological interest in old-style eating. Guyla promised the Richford Methodist Church supper — offering tasty, home-cooked food made by women of the congregation — would satisfy.

The LaFrances live in a raised ranch off a dirt road in Essex. They met at 14 when Larry borrowed a dime from Guyla, who is named for her grandfather. She has a brother named Guy, too. Both families have deep Vermont roots, and their home is built on the wood lot of the LaFrance farm. Married for more than 40 years, the couple worked at IBM for decades before retiring early. “I know people say a lot of things about IBM,” Guyla said as we drove north. “But it really gave some people around here a chance to do better.”

When I had arrived at their house to catch a ride, Guyla held up a five-page paper she had written to explain their long-time obsession. During our drive she read over the written points out loud, annotating as she went. Now and then Larry would add a comment. Guyla had also brought along a little photo album of church-supper pictures, a fine collection of culinary moments that might someday find its way to the historical society.

“Fellowship” is what motivates the LaFrances to track down church breakfasts, lunches and dinners all over the state. “You meet people. We make new friends,” Guyla says. They especially like to chat with older people who often share stories of rural Vermont life. Guyla recalls an elderly woman from Richford who recounted tales of making pickles on a wood stove with her mother. “I think she was evaluating the pickles that were on the table where we were sitting,” Guyla suggests.

Discriminating diners who steer clear of these community cookoffs may just be missing something. “Most of the time we will have a wonderful meal… like all-you-can-eat strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream,” Guyla enthused. And the price eases the pain of an occasional scorched chicken pie, especially when it goes to a good cause. “They used to be $3 and now they can be as much as $8.50,” she explained. “But you still can’t get a meal at a restaurant for that.”

“Especially not with a tip,” Larry chimed in.

The LaFrances don’t calculate the cost of getting to and from so many long-distance dinners. Although they tend to stick to ones served within a 60-mile radius of their home, the couple admits to racking up hundreds of miles each year to eat with “neighbors.” The day after I met them at the St. Patrick’s Day supper, they went to a ham dinner at St. Isadore’s in Montgomery, known for its exceptional spread of maple desserts, including maple dumplings, maple cream pies and maple cake with maple frosting. The day after our Richford food foray, Larry and Guyla made the same 100-mile round trip to attend a Palm Sunday scholarship dinner at a different church.

Does it sugar out financially? “That’s kind of moot,” Guyla said, a little defensively. “It’s our entertainment, too.”

The LaFrances seem willing to try almost any type of supper — with a few exceptions. A ration of raccoon at one game supper left Guyla cold. Ditto for fish fries. “We don’t really like those,” she said apologetically. “We haven’t learned to spit the bones out.”

Both chuckled about a dinner sponsored by an organization called Take Off Pounds Sensibly, at which the macaroni and cheese, goulash and meatballs were probably not low-fat. “In Georgia they bring one of each pie — a whole one — to every table, so help me!” Guyla recalled.

Supper menus generally follow the seasons. Vermont’s most famous are chicken pie suppers, which take place in September and October when farmers traditionally killed old hens that weren’t worth feeding through a long winter. A true Vermont chicken pie never has a crust. It’s chicken and gravy under biscuits, and no vegetables. The Richmond Congregational Church is renowned for its version and sells out every year.

Hunter breakfasts and game suppers are also held in the fall, for obvious reasons. The LaFrance’s favorite is a breakfast in Huntington, which Larry discovered when he was 16. Ham and bean suppers, as well as bean-hole suppers — named for the Native American tradition of cooking beans in a hole dug in the ground — continue through the fall, winter and early spring.

Summer is chicken barbecue time, and in late August and early September, harvest suppers include backyard produce. But the LaFrances are partial to covered-dish suppers, which take place throughout the year. With so much variety, there’s always something to like, and each cook contributes her specialty, be it molded pineapple-and-cucumber salad or cherry-cheese pie. It’s a community effort, but, “in some way these women are competing with one another,” Larry ex-plained. “They take a lot of pride in how they prepare their dishes.”

It was snowing harder when we finally entered Richford, a town that doesn’t have too much going on anymore. We passed a huge old boarded-up factory that once made maple furniture on our way to the Methodist church, a pretty, white-steepled building with modest, stained-glass windows. An older gentleman paused while sweeping snow off the wide path and offered a friendly hello.

Arriving early is an indication of supper expertise. “You have to know when they start serving — and it’s not always when they say it is,” Guyla warned. First-comers get the best pickings at a covered-dish supper. “Just take a little of each and you can go back,” Larry advised. The only catch is, you can’t take dessert before you’ve finished your main course. Larry pointed out the two ladies guarding the sweets up on the stage at the front of the hall.

We passed through an entryway paneled with pressed tin, and a church member checked the reservation list. For $6 she handed over a well-worn cardboard ticket printed in fancy script with the words “Chicken Pie Supper,” the church name and a November date scratched over in a spidery hand with another that was still not current.

The table to which they ushered us was covered with a light flowered cloth and set with real silverware, a white teacup at each place. Candy Cole was in charge of the kitchen. “We have a small congregation, but very good cooks and very generous,” she said. When I asked how long they’ve been doing church suppers, she shrugged. “I’ve been here 26 years and I’m a newcomer.”

Candy sent me to talk to someone with more history at the church: 89-year-old Helen Montgomery, a tiny, white-haired woman who was on dessert guard duty. She assured me that nothing much had changed in the 50 years she’s been involved in these church suppers. “Definitely, it’s still all women who do the cooking,” she said, looking surprised anyone would ask.

We were interrupted by an announcement — my table was being called. I’d been instructed not to let a moment lapse, so I dashed over, grabbed my china plate and headed for the buffet. About four or five long tables stood end to end, with a proud parade of bowls and casserole dishes down the center. Five Jell-O salads in different pastel tones led the line.

“Don’t forget your roll,” admonished Guyla, no doubt noticing my bewilderment. I remembered Larry’s advice and took a small scoop of almost everything. There was only one duplicate: the classic green-bean casserole with crispy onion topping. My plate was so crowded by the end of the buffet that I had to push Jell-O into three-bean salad to fit a handsome chicken pie — the only dish ladled out by a server. Back at the table, a man came by with coffee in a white enameled pitcher and promised to return with milk.

Between bites, Larry struck up a conversation with our neighbors, an older couple: She was small with tight, gray curls; he was big and rangy. Donald and Marguerite Guyette have lived in Richford for decades. “I spent my life in that furniture factory,” Donald said. But it was obvious that farming is in his blood. When the milk arrived, he became a food critic. “There’s only one thing skim milk is good for,” Donald said firmly — “to slop the hogs.”

I was surprised by how much I liked the Jell-O salad. It was soft and sweet, with mandarin oranges and those small, skinless grapes that come in canned fruit salad. The three-bean salad was the only “green” salad on the buffet, and it was quite a few months since those beans had seen dirt. But it was good, with crunchy bits of sweet onion and fresh green pepper. The scalloped potatoes were nice and cheesy — the real kind — and speckled with thyme. The macaroni and cheese was crusty-topped.

The chicken pie tasted as good as it looked — generous shreds of chicken in homemade gravy, with perfectly light biscuits that were not the least bit soggy. Other mounds on my plate were fine but undistinguished: creamy potato salad, broccoli casserole, baked beans and the green bean–onion bake. I was actually compelled to taste another Jell-O salad on a return trip for more scalloped potatoes.

Candy stopped by to reminisce about how diners used to pay for their supper by the “dip.” It was a quarter for every scoop, but someone had to stand at the end of the buffet and count, she explained, and it wasn’t worth the trouble. Candy urged me to go up and try some of the new dishes that had appeared, among them a hefty lasagna and a shepherd’s pie with corn. A plain bowl of Jell-O had joined its fancier cousins.

As we filled up, the talk turned to home cooking. Marguerite shared her trick for macaroni and cheese with “those little smoky wieners” cut up in it. We discussed techniques for cooking baked beans with maple syrup. Marguerite never tracks the temperature, and Larry said he always adds baking soda — “to take the snap out of them.”

Helen, the 89-year-old dessert guard, came over to make sure I got a piece of the good cake. The table on stage held rows of cake squares on little white plates: carrot with cream-cheese frosting, chocolate with chocolate, something in fluorescent pink and a white cake with a shiny, pale, coffee-colored frosting. Mary is famous for her boiled maple frosting, said Helen. It was marshmallow-sweet and good, especially with a big sip of milk.

Donald Guyette pushed back his chair. “You all done, mother?” he asked Marguerite. She nodded and they headed out. The storm was getting worse, so we thanked our hosts and climbed back in the truck, full to the gills. I felt like I’d traveled back 50 years over the same number of miles. All it took was some good advice and six bucks to get a tasty piece of Vermont.

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