Hey! Wednesday night, 1/6/2016 at 7:15pm, come to the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St., for our talk "Here Yesterday, Gone Today: A Flight of Madison Restaurant Lore" for CHEW - the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin. Free and open to the public; there will be snacks; new members and food pantry donations most welcome. Now, a bonus post.
Lots of words didn't fit into Madison Food. Here are some more of our favorites that we didn't want to be missed. This piece on Sunshine Supper, Sun Prairie's free community meal, is based on interviews and a meal on March 17, 2014. Sunshine Supper was more recently in the news in August 2015 when Buck & Honey's stepped up to serve a last-minute meal.
Sun Prairie, just northeast of Madison, is a rapidly growing city of about thirty thousand residents. It hosts a Sweet Corn festival that draws over 100,000 visitors each August. It’s the birthplace of Georgia O’Keeffe and the home of Wisconsin’s own weather prognosticator, Jimmy the Groundhog. In January 2010, Sun Prairie also saw the beginning of Sunshine Supper, a volunteer-run program that provides a free hot meal on Monday nights to anyone in the community.
Though it has served almost ten thousand plates of hot food in its first four years, the event does more than simply feed the hungry. It also quite effectively creates and sustains a real community. The experience is that of the most hospitable church basement supper imaginable. Inside the bright, spacious dining room on Main Street, Sunshine Supper’s fourth home since 2010, the feeling of friendship and joy is evident on a typical Monday night. A host greets guests at the door and invites them to pick up a dinner, find a seat, and relax for an hour or so. Someone might sing or play the upright piano as others dine. Near the end of the meal, there’s a pause to sing “Happy Birthday” and give a whole cake to each guest celebrating a birthday that week. Every kid in attendance is invited to choose a book to take home for keeps from a lovingly curated collection.
Sunshine Place, the supper’s parent organization, also runs a food pantry and thrift store and helps bring together the resources in the community to make these meals happen. Every year, 45 sponsoring groups provide the weekly meals and bring together more than 2,000 volunteers to serve. The event is wildly popular with the civic organizations, churches, and sports teams who host it, and the annual schedule fills up quickly.
The unique thing about Sunshine Supper is that the artificial boundary between giver and receiver is gone; here, everyone is a guest and the volunteers eat too. Julie Wiedmeyer, coordinating chair, emphasized that the organization set out to erase that distinction by having volunteers trade in their aprons for napkins halfway through each meal.
The meal was served at the Sun Prairie Masonic Lodge for the first year. There were about twenty-five guests and almost twice that number of volunteers at their first supper. The Masonic Lodge worked especially well through summertime, when grilling out was an easy and fun option. In early 2011, a great opportunity arose to renovate part of a local warehouse into a kitchen and dining space. Community members put in a great deal of sweat equity and new materials into the project, but tragically, less than a month after opening, they received notice that the warehouse operator was shutting down and they would have to abandon the space. Sun Prairie United Methodist stepped up to house the supper for the next two years, though the disappointment with the need to move was challenging.
But then, in spring of 2013, Sunshine Place purchased a retail building on Main Street near its headquarters. Another major remodeling project was undertaken to break down the walls between several small business spaces. Sunshine Supper’s permanent home boasts a beautiful floor of donated linoleum tiles that resemble a patchwork quilt in both form and symbolic meaning. The walls sport colorful collaborative paintings. The folding tables stay up from week to week now, and when supper’s not on, the space is happily used by other community groups.
The event grew primarily through word-of-mouth, with very little advertising or promotion at all other than a mailing to local schools. Groups in neighboring communities began to organize their own suppers. In March 2012 in McFarland, just southeast of Madison, Shared Table Free Community Meals began serving weekly at McFarland Lutheran Church. Cambridge Community Cafe started up in January 2013 on Thursday nights in a village on the Jefferson County line. And in January 2014, Stoughton’s Gathering Table hosted two Monday-night meals per month at the Stoughton Senior Center.
Sharing a meal, it seems, is an easy way to grow community and meet your neighbors and your neighbors' needs. While helping others is the main course, side dishes of civic engagement, fun, and laughter help everyone feel more at home, wherever they live.