There are a lot of New England traditions I really enjoy this time of year. Snowshoeing. Winter Carnivals. Maple Sugaring. And community suppers. Almost every weekend in late winter, harvest, and game season, there are a wide variety of community breakfasts and dinners, sponsored by a wide variety of local organization, churches, fire departments, and clubs, all of which provide a good way to meet a good cross-section of local society, as well as have a good hearty meal. While there are many such local dinners, however, quality really can run the gamut from “cheap spaghetti dinner” up to “homemade top-notch feast”. And the Hartland Congregational Church (known locally as “The Brick Church” to distinguish it from the white painted church down the road) hosts a great example of the later: the Hartland “Famous” Roast Beef Supper. In an area where most every church this time of year is sponsoring some sort of dinner, with a good number of them having roast beef, it takes a bit of chutzpah to proclaim your particular supper to be “famous”, but they do rise to the challenge and provide one of the area’s better (and most caloric) dinners. But they’ve been doing it since approximately WWII, and doing it well.
Here’s the scoop: The suppers run by the church’s Men’s Fellowship for 9 consecutive Saturdays starting in January every year (as well as one supper every fall), this year running from January 22nd through March 19th (you can find their calendar on hartlandbrickchurch.org. $12/person ($6 for children) gets you a seat at the table all-you-can eat roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy by the pitcher, green beans, rolls, cole slaw, pickles, and a slice of pie (17 varieties last time), all served family style. The beef is top-quality, they take full rib roasts (you can peek in the kitchen from the driveway behind the church) and slice them thin into giant platters of meat for each table. They tend to opt towards serving the meat on the rarer end of medium-rare, but for those that prefer their meat more well done, the staff will happily serve up a supplemental platter of medium-well or well-done beef on request. Add in some hand-mashed potatoes (no instant stuff here), some pickles, some green beans, and some of their excellent cole slaw (I usually don’t like cole slaw with raisins, but they do something to it here to make it really shine), you can easily assemble a bountiful feast on a plate (note to self: I always try to get good photos here, but also seem to leave my camera in the truck so that it wants to frost up, so I always seem to end up using a backup camera, this time my new iPhone). And since it’s all-you-can-eat, go back for a second or third helping of the same.
But you have to be very careful to not overdo it too much, since you have to save room for pie. Aside from the vast steaming piles of fresh-sliced roast beef, the other attraction at the Hartland Famous Roast Beef Supper is the selection of pies. I strongly suspect that for the week prior to each Supper, local families are working in overdrive making pies, since one whole corner of the basement is filled with pies tightly packed in little racks. Hartland prides itself on having a good variety of pies, handing out a pie menu after they clear the main course plates. Show up early, and you’ll have more than a dozen different pie varieties to chose from (conversely, show up late and you’ll only have two or three, I think the pies dictate when they’ve sold out more than anything else). This time, I opted for the Peach Cranberry Almond Pie. A bit of an unusual combination, it was still quite pleasant, and served up with a nice, flakey crust.
There is a catch, however: The feast is good enough that this one seriously popular community dinner. It seems as if half of Vermont shows up for this event, and a survey of the lot shows plates from pretty much every state in the Northeast (the couple sitting across from us was from Boston, and had even driven up just for the purpose of coming). It’s also gotten more than a bit of notoriety. Just a few years back J.D. Salinger sightings weren’t uncommon (he was well known for showing up at 3pm so he could be first in line). And a piece in this month’s Yankee Magazine (and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it mentioned previously in the magazine as well) certainly won’t cut back on the lines.
As a result, you need to show up early (I’ve seen people queuing up at 3pm, although 4pm is usually when the line starts to form in earnest), and the line can be very long, winding up and down the hallways and stairways of the church building, and it can often be an hour before you can get seated. However, this is also an hour of socializing, meeting new people, and getting the latest small-town Vermont gossip, all while supporting a sense of community. You can also come on the later side, when the lines are a lot shorter (coming at 6:30 one time, you can pretty much walk in), but on some nights they’ll move more than 400 people through the dinner, and having them start to run out of food isn’t uncommon towards the end of the evening. That, and the once-bountiful pie selection can start to get a little limited.