Does anyone else think that sometimes when we forget, for a moment, what we're looking so hard for we find it, unexpectedly?
Throughout my youth, my family vacationed in Vermont. My father, the Depression-era survivor who was incredibly creative with the concept of frugality, took us to church suppers when on vacation. Vermont at that time was second only to Pennsylvania and perhaps Georgia for the sheer number and variety of church suppers offered every summer. It was kinda like going out to eat but not as hard on the pocketbook.
Years later, in Connecticut, I'd searched and searched for the archetypal church supper only to come up empty-handed. Sure, there was the occasional spaghetti dinner put on by the local volunteer fire department. But the wonderful home-cooked beans, salads and casseroles of those wonderful, sunny days in Vermont eluded me. Until yesterday.
Tommy and I arrived at the French Model Council Club on East Street in New Britain, Connecticut at about one o'clock in the afternoon. It was very, very hot out and sultry. The sun was, gratefully, intermittent. The parking was hairy but we found a slot where it looked like his brand-new Chevrolet sedan wouldn't get scratched (or worse). Karen was watching Tommy's boy and her own kid, Cody (what a delightful, thoughtful young man of 13) so Tommy was pleased to drive down to the Club for a little male bonding, some good food and some social drinking.
It was kinda spooky the way the club members, none of them under 70 years of age, many far older, greeted us with genuine pleasure. Such smiles! (And not all dentures, either.) We were cordially shown to the ticket booth where for $100 I not only bought more food and beverage tickets than we could possibly need, but $40 worth of raffle tickets, too. The raffle prizes were custom-picked for this demographic; new fishing tackle, camp stoves, folding chairs and various other "woodsy" kinds of things.
Let's get right to the review.
The centerpiece of the day's festivities was the stage, where a band played Country & Western Standards mixed in with a little '50s pop. Couples packed the floor, many doing a classic two-step but all holding each other. To my mind the sight evoked a whole different era. The band was technically quite proficient but their arrangements were dated. It was wonderful.
Cocktails were icy cold and were being swiftly prepared by a lady who, when she's not working at the Club, bar-tends at a place nearby our house. The wait was only four deep for adult beverages and there was a nice crowd buzzing around the bar chatting and glad-handing each other. Tommy became a little self conscious as we stood there and a few of my customers came over and said hello. These wonderful people were delighted to have me at the party and I was quite humbled by the greeting. Of course, there were the few jokers who asked me if I'd go get them some "Chow Mein." But that's what you get for being a white guy in the Chow Mein business, in the little part of the country we call home.
The clam chowder was the creamy kind. It was an extremely simple amalgam of clams, onions, potatoes, cream, clams and a few bay leaves. Did I mention they used cream? The roux was perfectly cooked and even on an incredibly hot day like this it was just what the doctor ordered. They served the chowder with oyster crackers, little pillows of crispiness that went wonderfully with the soup.
What can you say about baked beans that've been made from scratch? These had a bit of a toughness about their skins; they were black-eyed peas; not Great Northern beans. It was just fine. The beans, like the chowder, were a study in simplicity (I could've used more molasses but they were delectable nonetheless). Although these people were by-and-large Catholics, the food showed a Presbyterian restraint that was just charming.
The hot dogs were remarkable; plump, natural-casing ("snap!") gems that cooked up perfectly on the charcoal fire. They out-shone the burgers (pre-formed at the meat packer) by a mile. The gentlemen working the grill were kind enough to give me a "medium rare" burger even though they admitted they liked all their beef "cooked through."
Chicken was dressed with oil and a little salt and pepper and cooked on a slow, slow grill until it fell off the bone. No breasts here; leg quarters only. One of the younger guys at the grill was experimenting with Kraft barbecue sauce on some of the pieces but the general consensus was that the plain grilled chicken was the way to go. Moist, juicy and flavorful, the chicken surpassed in quality some restaurant duck I've had (at ten times the price).
French Fries (how appropriate given the name of the venue) and fried Onion Rings were fresh and quite hot, but after the fabulous beans and chowder were just a culinary distraction. I got ahold of one of the ladies from the "food committee" and asked her "where's the potato salad, where're the molded Jell-O salads?" and she complimented my good taste but said that they'd decided that those offerings would just complicate things. Remember, this thing's all about simplicity.
Did I mention we had a couple of cocktails? Now, I'm a pro when it comes to bartending, but the woman behind the bar here was amazing! No whining about specials like a White Russian or a Martini (I didn't dare; I stuck to Smirnoff and orange juice). Tommy had to pull me away, so mesmerizing were her moves. Each one was a calculated efficiency.
Forgive me for repeating myself but we were welcomed into this wonderful festival so warmly I was humbled. Perhaps this is God's way of re-assuring cynical me that there's actually something right with the world.
Shortcake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream ($3) accompanied by strong coffee was a perfect ending to an afternoon of food and dancing (no, not with Tommy; these people are nice but not that nice. Besides, I don't think Tommy'd want to dance with me anyhow.). I was honored that the staff allowed me some of their coffee (nah; nobody else really drinks it so we can't charge you for it). I bought more raffle tickets with the money I'd expected to pay for the coffee.
Tommy and I returned to the little dive bar in my neighborhood bearing plates of food for the folks there who couldn't make the picnic (and I still had food tickets left over that I gave to a guy I know). That evening some of the people from the Club came over to the bar and we got a chance to serve them graciously. It couldn't have been a more perfect day, or night, for that matter.
As I walked into my yard a firefly was beaming in the branches of a Japanese Maple tree. That reminded me to say a prayer of thanks. I'd today found what I'd been so aggressively searching for but wasn't ready for. Today I was ready.