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‘The thing you do around here:’ Prairie fall suppers adjust to COVID-19 reality

Vehicles lined up more than three kilometres along a rural Manitoba road on the last Sunday afternoon of September as their occupants waited to grab a traditional Ukrainian feast in a brown takeout bag.

The community hall in Pansy, about 90 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, ran out of fried chicken, perogies, cabbage rolls and other goodies at about 4:30 p.m.

“We probably turned around at least 100 vehicles,” said Leanne Germain, Pansy Hall’s president and one of the organizers of its famous annual fall supper. “That was the most painful part.”

Fall suppers are a long-running harvest-time tradition in the Prairies. But food served buffet-style and eaten shoulder-to-shoulder at long communal tables is a no-no in the time of COVID-19.

So community centres and churches have been adjusting by serving their grub drive-thru style.

It’s been a way to recoup some of the revenue the pandemic has sapped from weddings, banquets and meetings.

“We want to be present in our community. We don’t want to see our community halls closed. We love feeding people,” said Germain.

In all, Pansy Hall managed to serve more than 700 people at this year’s supper. Pre-pandemic that number would have been up to 1,500.

Some of this year’s attendees rolled up in motorhomes or off-road vehicles. Many brought lawn chairs and ate outside in nearby green space.

“If we had to do this again, we know now that we can prepare for 1,000 people or 1,200 people,” said Germain.

“We just didn’t know if people would come out and support, but they did. They were a force to be reckoned with.”

Irene Schmidtke was one of the people who left the Pansy supper empty-handed.

“I was standing in line waiting for them and then somebody trotted by us and said they sold out.”

Schmidtke is organizing a midday drive-thru dinner at the Friedensfeld Community Centre south of Steinbach on Oct. 25. She had been planning to serve 400, but witnessing first-hand Pansy’s popularity, she’s wondering whether to scale up.

“We don’t know,” she said. “It’s a gamble.”

Schmidtke said fall suppers are a big deal around where she lives, and people are often bused in from Winnipeg.

“They have your favourites and everybody goes to eat,” she said. “It’s just the thing you do around here. You wait for them.”

Heritage United Church in Regina has held fall suppers for three decades, and the pandemic is not getting in the way of it continuing the tradition this year.

‘It’s really a favourite activity. It’s a time when families all come together and eat and it’s quite a huge production,” said Rev. Joy Cowan.

Volunteers delivered pre-ordered packages of turkey and all the fixings to cars in the church’s parking lot this weekend.

The 250 meals it set aside for Saturday sold out, so the church decided to expand into Sunday.

“It’s amazing to see all the ways that churches are innovating. The pandemic is inviting us to try new things,” said Cowan.

“It’s fun to be able to try something out of the box and also to serve our community.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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