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A community of thanks

Volunteers prepare for annual Thanksgiving dinner at River Garden

BRATTLEBORO—The annual Brattleboro Community Thanksgiving Dinner committee continues a more-than-30-year tradition of serving Thanksgiving Day dinner and sharing friendship.

Dinner will be served buffet-style at the River Garden on Thursday, Nov. 25, from noon until 5 p.m. Everyone is invited, and the meal is free.

“Patrons are treated as special,” said committee member Katherine Barratt.

“It’s organized chaos,” joked member Ray Branagan.

Every year, Branagan said, he wonders if enough diners will sit down and eat the food. Then, halfway through the meal, he worries there won’t be enough food to feed all the people.

The committee uses “free will” donations to rent china and silverware for the event.

“They’re classier than paper plates and plastic,” said Barratt.

In past years, between 500 and 700 people sat down to the community-cooked meal, feasting on favorites like turkey, roasted root vegetables, gravy, ham, mashed Gilfeather turnips, garlic potatoes, apple crisp and pies.

Vegetarians also have entrees to choose from, said member Ian Bigelow.

“It’s awesome. There’s lots of people. It’s nice, especially when you don’t have a family to go to,” said Abby Banks, who has attended the Community Thanksgiving for three years.

The core committee meets weekly from September to Thanksgiving to ensure diners walk away with full bellies. They hope other community members would like to either help with food preparation, set up, serving or clean up.

A host of volunteers prepare and serve the food. The day couldn’t happen without this “sizable crew,” said committee members.

Barratt said volunteers are needed on Wednesday, Nov. 24, to prepare vegetables and apples for desserts.

On Thanksgiving Day, the committee requires volunteers to help set up, transport food between St. Michael’s School’s kitchen and the River Garden, serving at the buffet, or cleaning up.

Barratt said the committee hopes to engage more young people this year and is working with school officials to establish the Community Thanksgiving as a pathway for high school students to fulfill their community service requirements.

“In many different ways, people help,” said Barratt.

Students in conjunction with the Brattleboro Union High School’s art department will create this year’s centerpieces.

Local farmers, producers, restaurants and businesses donate ingredients, items and money. According to Branagan, donations can appear small but add up.

Brigid’s Kitchen and St. Michael’s School donate kitchen space. Community members also prepare food at home.

This year, the Vermont Foodbank donated refrigeration units, which helped solve a longstanding issue of where to store food, said Barratt.

Committee members credit fellow member Ian Bigelow with building connections with local farms. Most of the donated food is organic.

“A whole lot [of people and businesses] give a little to make the meal,” Branagan said.

Long tradition

The Community Thanksgiving Day meal has its roots in the former Common Ground restaurant. When the restaurant closed several years ago, the committee decided to continue and resettled in the River Garden.

Branagan said some patrons have attended the meal every year even coming from out-of-state like a couple from New York who has made the pilgrimage for 30 years.

For students at Marlboro College or the School for International Training who are unable to go home, the dinner provides community, said Barratt.

In the case of many SIT students, the event exposes them to their first Thanksgiving.

Because kitchen space is tight, the committee asks anyone willing to make pies or cook turkeys at home to step forward.

The committee also works with Meals on Wheels to provide home delivery for residents within a 10-mile radius of downtown. Peter Wiles, home delivery coordinator, said neighbors can also pick up boxed dinners at the River Garden for friends.

Anyone interested in volunteering on Nov. 24 should contact Robin Allen. People interested in volunteering on Thanksgiving Day should contact Katherine Barratt or stop by the committee’s table during November Gallery Walk to sign up. (See sidebar.)

“[It] brings everybody together. Come and eat please,” said Bigelow.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #74 (Wednesday, November 3, 2010).

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