Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 9, 2020
What’s cooking at Simmering Pot? Friends, food and community spirit
Mary Hildebrand has coordinated The Simmering Pot since around 2011, taking over from founder Hadley Friedman.
by Anne Berleant
Using a 10-gallon soup pot, local foods and about 30 volunteers, The Simmering Pot has offered a free community meal nearly every Monday afternoon at the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill for a decade and counting.
Started in February 2009 by Hadley Freeman, with a boost from a Maine Community Foundation grant, the weekly offering is now coordinated by Mary Hildebrand, an early volunteer.
“[Hadley] loved cooking for people and really wanted to give it away,” Hildebrand said over coffee in the Co-op Café, serendipitously where Freeman was cooking when she came up with the idea of The Simmering Pot—“as a way to get healthy food to people who have economic restraints,” Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand smiled. “It’s the most effective way [of feeding people] when you don’t have a lot of money.”
Hildebrand began volunteering at The Simmering Pot in the summer of 2009. “I’m not a cook but I’d show up, and [Freeman] would say, ‘Chop the peppers.’ For me, it was really easy to step in and help.”
Produce to make the Monday meal is purchased, and donated, from several local farms. Grants from Maine Farmland Trust have, for three straight years, added local, farm-grown meat to the menu. Helping to keep the program going are Flash! in the Pans concerts, individual donations on site, and Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital providing the main course the first Monday each month with their own volunteers.
“At the beginning, it was hard to find the funding….No one wanted to give us money to buy food. They’d buy us a computer, set up an infrastructure [but not buy food]. And every volunteer brings their own apron and knife,” Hildebrand said. Volunteers may take food safety courses free through Healthy Acadia, and 18 have done so.
A Monday in mid-September offered a typical menu: chicken vegetable soup, vegetable soup with pesto and beans, green salad, cheese slices, orange wedges and pineapple chunks, and fresh bread. The menu board, done up in style each week by Della Martin, lets diners know where main ingredients come from as in any farm-to-table restaurant.
The soup-bread-and-salad meal always has vegetarian and gluten-free options.
“When you talk about people with financial stress, one of the reasons may be their health. To provide a healthy meal is a boost,” Hildebrand said.
The volunteers who cook, set up and clean up rotate through different tasks, Hildebrand said. “Nobody has to do the whole day [and] volunteers just do what they want to do, and that’s the best thing for us.”
“It’s just fun to be here,” said Donna Loomis as she readies the serving table. “Everyone’s so hungry, and I love the musicians.”
A relatively new addition, Carl Karush, on guitar, and Ken Weeks, on harmonica, add to the festive mealtime. “The musicians surprised us,” Hildebrand said. “They just showed up on their own and started playing.”
The meal itself has produced volunteers, like Diane Messer: “I came to eat and looked at all the people serving, and I just transitioned.”
That said, Hildebrand said the Pot could use a fill-in head cook. “Paula Mrozicki is head chef and works her tail off. She’s been doing it a lot of years.” As head chef, Mrozicki plans the menu, pulls together the ingredients and directs the volunteers.
“We pay for our greens and most of the soup ingredients,” Hildebrand said, with TradeWinds offering a discount. “They’re super partners. It made [this] very doable.” Come summer and fall, The Simmering Pot joins gleaning initiatives, and local farms also donate produce unsold at farmers’ markets.
“We use as much as can,” Hildebrand said, even bagging greens and apples for people to take home.
While the Pot opens at 2:30 p.m., things really get going around 5 p.m. “We have a group of people who don’t need a meal but just come for the camaraderie,” Hildebrand said. “They pick up people from Parker Ridge [and] are very generous, and often help clean up.”
A take-out option began early on, when parents came after picking up children from school and didn’t want to sit and eat, Hildebrand said. But for some people, just getting to the church for the meal is a problem.
“We recognize transportation is an issue for [this] group of people,” Hildebrand said. “We haven’t sorted that out” but are working on matching volunteers with those in need of a ride.
After 10 years of The Simmering Pot, Hildebrand shows as much passion as in the earlier days.
“We really wanted people to eat together. There’s not a lot of meanness when you’re sitting down at a meal together. It breaks down a lot of hard feelings.”