SARANAC LAKE - It's as much an act of community as it is of charity.
You can't tell from the street outside the First United Methodist Church that there's a big crowd inside, but there is. More than 100 people eat together in the basement dining room every Wednesday evening.
Some of these people admit their finances are slim and this free, hot meal helps them get through the week. Others say they don't necessarily need it but come mainly to socialize. Still others say it beats cooking for one. What all those interviewed for this article agreed is that the food is tasty and plentiful, and it's good to share a meal with others.
Anita Meserole, right, serves salad to Corey Bova on Wednesday, April 2 at a weekly dinner hosted by the First United Methodist Church of Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
The Rev. Wilbert Gamble, left, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Saranac Lake, serves pork on Wednesday, April 2 at the church’s weekly dinner.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
Ken Martell, left, and Kurtis Meinhardt cut pork for a weekly dinner at the First United Methodist Church of Saranac Lake on Wednesday, April 2. Behind them, a health inspector checks out the kitchen.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
Supper is served from 5 to 6 p.m., with entry at the church's side door on St. Bernard Street. Down the stairs, diners get in a line that winds around the big hall. They are served cafeteria style. Five or six volunteers dish up the food, and another five or six work in the kitchen behind them.
Marlene Martin is in charge. She said she doesn't usually keep track of how many volunteers show up, "but we always seem to have enough." In addition to the 10 or 12 in the kitchen, she said, "We have some people who come and set up, and then eat and go, so you probably won't see those - and then people who come a little bit later and clean up."
Since many of the volunteers eat as well, and many diners help set up or clean up, sometimes it's hard to tell who is which - or whether it matters.
This evening, a final count showed that between 110 and 120 people came to eat. There were the same number at a follow-up visit two weeks later. That's typical for this time of year, Martin said.
"This past summer we were getting 150 on a regular basis," she said. "Sometimes if it's snowing and really cold, we might get 85, which is still pretty good."
Martin has been part of this Wednesday night dinner since it began in November 2007. Saranac Lake already had the Community Lunchbox, a two-day-a-week free lunch hosted by St. Luke's Episcopal Church, but there was no free dinner.
"Our pastor at the time (the Rev. Maggie McCarey), she just thought it was something that was good for our community and our church to do, so we took it on," Martin said.
Six-and-a-half years ago, Martin didn't think it would be as big as it is now.
"When we started out, we were just doing three different pots of soup and salad and rolls, and now we have a full-course meal," she said. "We have a green salad, a fruit salad, usually a third type (of) salad: potato salad, macaroni salad, something like that. We have a soup, we have a vegetable, we have hot dogs, and then tonight we're having pork, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole." There's also dessert and a variety of beverages.
The cost of the dinner is covered in part by donations, including a grant from the local Frances L. Carpenter Foundation, and is lower since organizers get much of the food through the regional food bank. Martin figured each weekly dinner costs about $75 total.
Suddenly Martin was called away to accompany a state health inspector on a surprise tour of the operation (it passed, she said later), and the interview turned to other volunteers.
Some are Methodists, including the relatively new pastor, the Rev. Wilbert Gamble, but not all. A family of Mormons comes every week. As Kurtis Meinhardt, a young Mormon elder, cut big hunks of roasted pork in the kitchen, he said he's motivated by "just being able to be out in the community and help people in this town."
Ken Martell, cutting pork next to him, said, "It just felt like the right thing to do. It gets me out of the house."
New this week was the Rev. C.J. McAvoy, a retired Catholic priest.
"It's very organized, and Marlene (Martin), she's really in control," McAvoy said. "She's a good organizer."
He heard about the dinner at a Rotary Club meeting from Mitchel Smith, a Methodist and Rotarian who's also helping this evening.
On the other side of the serving line, George Baker said, "If you want a good meal at a good price, you'd be stupid not to come down here.
"I come when I'm a little down on funds," he added. "You know, with the economy these days and me being a landscaper, I get laid off during the wintertime, and this a great place for a meal. At least once a week I'm not hungry."
Is it tough the other nights of the week?
"Not really," Baker said. "I also use the food pantries and things like that, what have you, when money's tight, but when I feel like coming around and socializing with a bunch of people I haven't seen all week, you know, I come down here.
"It's a good community setting. I enjoy it."
Baker also appreciates that the food is homemade.
"Nothing's fake," he said. "The potatoes even have lumps in them."
Shawn Brady, who lives at the DeChantal Apartments high-rise across the street, said she's picky about what she eats but likes coming here because it's free, it's tasty, and there's a good variety.
"I've never been here and had a bad one," she said. "Green bean casserole - yum.
"I don't eat a lot of meat," she added. "I don't prepare a lot; I'm not very good at it. ... But sometimes, you've got to get your protein from somewhere, and I am sick of yogurt."
The meal is also good for seniors who live alone.
"Us old people, I just don't feel like cooking," said Cindy Fogg of Bloomingdale, here for the second time. "I'd live on crackers and cheese."
Often there are more people inside the church's doors at the Wednesday night supper than at the Sunday morning service, according to a March 2011 Enterprise profile of McCarey by Yvona Fast. Ruth Woodward, a Methodist eating with Fogg this Wednesday, said she's disturbed that some in her church think people getting free meals here ought to attend services, too.
"I say no, not at all," Woodward said. "You shouldn't feel obligated."
The abundance of the food here is clearly appreciated. Many people come up for seconds and thirds, and there's more left over at the end. Shirley Hosler, who has been coming here for six months to help and eat, said she asked other volunteers at one point what they did with the leftover food. When she learned they threw it away, she arranged for to-go meals to be made up for families she knows.
"Those kids are so happy when I bring that food to them," she said. "One family's having a hard time."
The volunteers here even help Hosler deliver the meals, she said.
"They do wonderful work, I can tell you," she said.
Corey Bova, eating with his wife, their two children and other relatives, said he doesn't come here out of necessity but "because I enjoy seeing people.
"A lot of these people here I see on a daily basis working out at Dollar Tree, he said. "I'm not here for the meal; I'm here for the people. But a lot of people do come because they need that meal, and it does help them out a lot. I've noticed that especially through the winters. The really, really cold days when you don't think anybody would come? Those are the people that really need the meals are the ones that are here. And you'd be surprised; some nights you still get quite a few people on below-zero days."
Bova's uncle, Eric Wamsganz, adds, "Anyone that asks me, they find out I come here, how the dinners are, I try to tell everyone, 'You're not going to get a dinner like this anywhere else but Grandma's house.'"