Groceries cover the kitchen island in St. Augustine’s church hall. They include carrots, yellow potatoes, broccoli, onions, tins of coconut milk, limes, fresh ginger, cans of diced and stewed tomatoes, herbs, spices and bags of raisins and almonds.
Chef April Pringle sorts through the provisions and adds chicken marinated overnight in yogurt and masala.
It’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in Marpole and preparations for the weekly three-course community meal begin. Tonight’s menu: Indian spiced-tomato soup, Tandoori chicken, curried potatoes and mixed vegetables, followed by rice pudding sprinkled with almonds for dessert.
Marpole Place Neighbourhood House runs the dinner, although due to a major flood last December, it’s been moved to the Anglican church on Hudson Street from the organization’s base at 1305 West 79th. Repairs won’t be complete for four to six months.
With just over two hours before service starts, Pringle puts chief volunteer Doug Cruthers to work. Tasked with prepping vegetables, Cruthers silently and single-mindedly peels five pounds of carrots.
“Doug is Mr. faithful. If the other volunteers don’t show up, I can always count on him,” Pringle says.
A perpetually cheerful Allan Minichiello watches from the pass-through while making coffee and tea. “She’s the best,” he says of Pringle — a compliment he applies to almost everyone he meets, including a writer from the Courier. Several other volunteers set up and lay the tables.
Although the dinner, designed to create social connections, started out years ago as a potluck for seniors, it now attracts a more diverse crowd of between 30 to 40 people. Many seniors still pop in for the made-from-scratch meals and the company, but the event also draws young families, those with mental health concerns, those with intellectual disabilities, as well as the homeless or those at risk of homelessness.
“Everybody knows food brings people together in many significant ways,” Cindy McMillan, executive director of Marpole Place Neighbourhood House, told the Courier.
The grocery bill is about $150 and the aim is to break even — diners pay $6 per person, volunteers eat for free and vouchers are given to those in need. Leftovers are sold at a discounted price.
Guests come for a variety of reasons, according to Pringle.
“It’s good food, good company, good price. [People] definitely come for the company. It’s a real community,” she explains. “For me it’s a job, but it’s a community for me too and it’s a job that I look forward coming to.”
ringle’s recent multicultural menus have ranged from Chinese roast pork, rice and veggie stir-fry to Moroccan stew with rice and vegetables.
On this occasion, Pringle wonders if the South Asian fare will scare off regulars — a fear that isn’t realized — but there’s not much time to worry as she and Cruthers work to meet their dinner-time deadline.
Spicy aromas build. Milk and basmati rice simmer on the stove, while Pringle sautés carrots, onions and garlic for the soup base.
Michael, a 22-year-old volunteer originally from Vietnam, arrives at 4:30 p.m. to help. He places chicken on baking pans before sliding them into the oven. Under Pringle’s guidance, he hand-juices limes and chops cilantro for the soup, pausing briefly to teach Pringle the Vietnamese word for herb. She struggles with the pronunciation before abandoning the effort with a laugh.
Bags of donated bread arrive and three pre-teens from David Lloyd George elementary — volunteer servers for the dinner — slice it before guests begin to trickle in. Diners claim their usual tables, saving seats for friends before grabbing cups of coffee or tea.
Amelia and Edwin Mui are among them. The couple, originally from Hong Kong, lived in Toronto before moving to a single-family home in Marpole 22 years ago.
They saw the community meal advertised for years before finally stopping in. Now they rarely miss a week.
“It’s quite interesting. You see neighbourhood people. It’s good to know our neighbours, right?” Amelia says. “I’m a fan of April. She’s a professional chef, first of all, and she really cooks from her heart and with consideration of our health. I like the community feeling and I like the chef. We can talk to people and make acquaintances. It’s very diversified [company]. That’s the one thing I like.”
Edwin adds: “Most of the next table are regulars. We know most of them by name. [The meal is] good especially for senior people — they get some social life.”
Like at a typical family dinner, a few grumble about minor details — the temperature of the soup or the number of raisins in the rice pudding, but almost all scrape their plates clean.
The results of more than two hours of preparation are devoured in less than half that time. Most leave by 8 p.m., save for seniors playing Rummoli — a post-dinner tradition.
Volunteers clear tables and do dishes. Pringle is satisfied. “We had a nice turnout. We had one extra piece of chicken. We fed all the volunteers, so that’s always good, and I had lots of compliments. So, yeah, it went really well tonight,” she says.