I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never have a formal dining room. You know the kind I mean, a room with a long handsome table that seats ten or twenty people, with water glasses, stemmed goblets for wine, fine china and fingerbowls. The kind of table where I would have to question, “Which fork is this, my salad fork, or is it for the main course?” A room where there are old fine art oil paintings that adorn the walls, lit by brass lamps that reflect the mastery of the artist. Oh, and candles, how they’ll set the mood for an exquisite evening.
No, I may never know what it’s like to dine in such a formal setting, but I do know fine dining. I’ve found a dining experience that fits into my life just perfectly, and I can’t imagine a month without one. Pot Luck dining: I don’t know where these dinners originated, I like to think they started right here in New England. I’m not going to “Google” them on line to learn their history, but one thing I do know, whoever came up with the concept was a genius.
I can’t remember my first, perhaps it was at the Fire Station in Lovell, Maine, where it seemed the entire town showed up to socialize. I’m always tempted to stop at those suppers you see advertised on a hand painted board “Church Supper Tonight, All Are Welcome,” but it’s usually last minute that I see them and I was brought up never to show up empty handed. So I smile instead for those inside enjoying their community gathering.
I have a small group that gets together to play what we call “Extreme Croquet,” mostly during the not-so-perfect weather days, hence the name “Extreme.” One Saturday a month, at High Noon, we meet for the fun and the bragging rights of taking the win on the course. There may be briar, knee deep grass, waist high snow, rain, or other obstacles on the course. Always, there is friendly ribbing… “Watch him, he cheats! Send Him, Send Him Long.” And always, always, there is laughter in abundance and a great variety of food in between rounds. A quiet comes over the room as folks warm up with some of Helen’s chowder, a mound of Shepherds’ Pie, or a slice of Tracy’s extreme lemon cake.
So, I may have only won bragging rights once in 20 or 30 games, but I surely come out on top each time I go, from the friendship, fresh air filled with the sounds of friend’s voices, and that wonderful, ever present “Pot Luck” meal.
Fast forward now, to a boat building shop on Harbor Loop. The building itself is part of Gloucester’s Maritime Heritage Center. Why they took the word “Heritage” out of the name is beyond me and a whole other story.
Anyway, when I bump into Geno he’ll say, “Hey, we’re going to be cooking this Saturday, you should come by if you can.” Or: “We’re getting together this weekend,” and the one I’m always sad to hear: “We’ve been getting together, I haven’t seen you in a while, where’ve you been?” Life. Why is it that life sometimes gets in the way of being somewhere we’d like to be, doing what we’d like to do?
Back to the Dory Shop. There’s usually a boat in the process of being built on any given Saturday afternoon you step through the old wood sliding door. Hopefully, for our purpose, it’s at the stage where it’s upside down and we can use the bottom for our table. One of my fondest memories was hearing someone yell from inside the shop “Hey Geno, we need a bigger boat,” as people kept arriving with more food. There’s plenty of sawdust, boat building tools and warmth from the wood stove that will surely have something good cooking on it.
Remove the lid from the cast iron skillet and catch a fine mouth-watering aroma taking the chill out of a November day.
Tom will most likely arrive with rosy cheeks, a bucket of steamers and a few lobsters he hauled just that morning. Someone may bring Finnan Haddie, home baked beans, a salad, sweets… Ever hear of a “Gloucester Lollipop?” We have those too, when Joe comes in with his Mackerel on a stick and what a treat when Geno makes his fish cakes and calls from the wood stove to get ‘em while they last. You never know what you’ll get, but a guarantee is that you will be welcomed, you will be well fed, and you’ll have such a grand time that you’ll want to return again and again.
An added bonus to Saturday afternoon’s at the Dory Shop would be the music. Someone is bound to bring an instrument or a pretty voice to entertain for a spell. Want to dance? Go ahead, no one judges you here.
Perhaps others will join you, or try and sing along. It’s okay if you don’t know the words. Just don’t sit in the rocking chair if it’s empty. That’s Joe’s chair and he’s too much of a gentleman to tell you so. It’s just a given for those of us who’ve been around a while. The way I hear it, Geno started these Saturday afternoon “Pot Lucks” so he would have something fun to do with his uncle. How wonderful for us that we benefit from these kind souls.
I bring you a bit away from the waterfront, to a two-car garage that houses no cars, behind Burnham’s Field. I call these pot luck meals “Sunday Dinner at Joe’s Garage.” I have an entire photo album just for these meals. Some of the photos include Joe gathering mussels off the seaweed beds of Ten Pound Island with his daughter, to be later photographed in a pan of garlic, fresh tomatoes and wine. Oh, and the fresh bread!
Joe makes loaves every time. Hot from the industrial restaurant style ovens, smothered in sesame seed, a true gift for your taste buds. How many pictures of food can you take? I don’t know yet, I’m still working on it. I know for sure, there’ll be more delights coming from Sunday Dinner at Joe’s Garage. Homemade sausage, pizzas, linguini with the clam sauce, countless photo ops.
Today I’m at another friend’s house for “Patriots Football.” I’m among some of my dearest of friends and they all know I’m not here to watch football. Oh, I do hope the Patriots continue with their winning streak, but it is certainly not the foremost reason for being here. It’s the nourishment of friendship, good eats and conversations, before, during half time and after the game that feed me. Even the dogs are happy to be invited. Maybe someone will toss them a scrap; in the meantime, they run and play in the autumn sunshine. This group of people take turns each time there is a one o’clock game on a Sunday. One week it might be at Maria’s or June’s, perhaps a Harvest Meal at Lenny and Ricks, wherever it may be any particular week is the place I want to be.
I can hear cheers from the other room, the Pats must be winning. From where I sit, we have all won for this day we’ve been given together.
There are so many ways we enjoy ourselves. I find for me they generally involve food. The Fort Gang feasts at different friends’ homes during St. Peter’s Fiesta, celebrating the Fourth of July with the same crew and then some in Rockport. Bringing a dish to the Orchard Street Parade where the famous “Hat Ladies” debut their incredible work. St. Joseph’s Feast at Auntie Emma’s, which starts before most are out of bed to make the pasta. All memories that make forever stories to be told time and again.
So folks, if you’ve never experienced it, I highly recommend it… call it what you will, “Pot Luck Dinner, Pot Luck Lunch, Sunday Dinner at Joe’s Garage.” Make up your own excuse, just do it. Get together with your friends, share in the making of the meal, and eat it together, be it leaning on a porch railing or the bottom of an overturned boat. Rain, snow, sunshine or under the stars, simply enjoy each other’s company.
If you want to “Google” the origins of Pot Luck, please let me know what you find. I imagine they’ve been around since time began. Surely, because of them, I dine on the best food on earth, in the finest settings, surrounded by the laughter and love of friendships old and new.
Laurel Tarantino, writer, is happy to live in her hometown, Gloucester, with her husband, James,”Jimmy T,” daughter Marina Bella, and the family dog, Sport. She is known for “stopping to smell the roses” and loves to photograph and write about her beloved waterfront community.