A Look Back: Food once a pivotal part of Town Meeting

By STEVE TAYLOR

For the Valley News

Published: 03-07-2023 6:09 PM

Time was when the food served on Town Meeting day was nearly as important as things like the school budget, highway maintenance and a new fire truck when they came up for discussion and votes. Many Upper Valley Vermont towns and a few on the New Hampshire side prided themselves on their midday meal traditions, and some folks turned out primarily for the dinner menu rather than the weighty subjects coming up for action.

Well, that was then, and this is now. The town meeting day dinner — note, it’s always dinner if it’s in the middle of the day; you eat supper in the evening — has almost become extinct in the region. Various forces have diminished this once fine tradition, including the consolidation of meeting agendas, lowered appreciation of freewheeling — occasionally rowdy— debate, a shift to disposing of town business with a day-long secret ballot and fewer volunteers stepping up to cook and serve meals for a large group.

And along came the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, which tore further at the traditional ways town meetings were set up and conducted.

It’s been said that civilized people make better decisions, and that belief has long permeated discussion of the town meeting meal. Frank Bryan, a long-retired political science professor at the University of Vermont and leading scholar on the town meeting form of government, argued that when people sit down at a communal table and share a meal passions diminish and common ground can be found.

Many others would argue similarly. But it’s almost always that what is being offered is what will draw folks in. Tracing to the late 1700s, simple, hearty fare typically prepared with locally produced ingredients brought people in. Pork and beans, beef stew, red flannel hash and occasionally corn chowder. As the generations rolled by, menus broadened to include more modern entrees like pasta and chicken pie, and, of course, pot luck dishes and casseroles to go with breads and coleslaw.

The capstone of a good Town Meeting day dinner has always been pie. To this day, Tunbridge goes all-out for pie and says no to cake and cookies. Traditionally, the pie course is assembled from a broad swath of the community’s bakers.

So, can there ever be a renaissance of the town meeting dinner? As long as there are people willing to take on the hard work of putting on a dinner, it has a chance. But as Montpelier, Concord and changes in the way towns go about deciding public policy questions are in the mix, let’s savor those great memories of town meeting dinners of yore.

Steve Taylor is a former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner and a former editor of the Valley News. He lives in Meriden.

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