BAR HARBOR — The tenets of Sikhism, a religion which originated during the brutal Mogul reign, in the Punjab area of India, in the late 15th century, include faith and meditation, divine unity and a belief in the equality of all humankind. It also requires its adherents to engage in honest conduct, selfless service and to exhibit a reverence for God and family.
Mahandeva Singh and Puranjot Kaur, yogis and converted Sikhs seem to be the embodiment of those principles, including another, which holds that no single religion holds the divine truth.
The couple thought the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church here had a great idea when it sponsored the Food for All program — a free non-denominational community dinner, open to all comers. When, due to construction issues, the church had to discontinue the popular program Singh and Kaur picked up the banner.
“Serving humanity — especially feeding people, is an important part of our faith,” says Singh, who with his wife and three children often attended the free weekly community meals at Holy Redeemer. “We knew that not having a community supper for people in need of a good hot meal, and or social connections, would create a real hole.”
So, after some debate with his wife they decided, despite their already busy lives as a yoga therapist and a director of an international nonprofit, they were the folks to fill that hole.
It appears they were right.
When they first opened Open Table MDI in February 2018 at the Congregational Church here in Bar Harbor, they served about 50 meals. A couple of weeks ago the now officially non-profit organization served 220.
Clearly it is not the ambience of the venue that brings people back every Tuesday from 4-7 p.m. — we’re talking your typical fluorescent lit church basement, long folding tables and metal chairs, with emergency shelter cots and cartons of stuff lined up against the walls.
It is the food — a variety of international vegetarian dishes — and the camaraderie of community breaking bread together— that has them lining up at the door.
“Building community, one meal at a time,” is the program’s motto. Also, it seems, music, as some local musician or group usually performs during the dinner.
“Our mission is to inspire strong, loving and inclusive communities through the sharing of weekly meals,” the online statement reads “We provide a welcoming place, nourishing food, a listening ear, and acceptance to all — regardless of age, race, gender, gender identity and expression, country of origin, social-economic status, faith background, marital status and family structure, mental and physical ability, immigration status or sexual orientation.”
“This is especially important in these divisive times,” Kaur says. “Reminding people we are all in this together and we need to find connecting points.”
Last Tuesday night, the main course was a Punjabi dish, Moong Dahl, served with rice, broccoli, a big bread pocket called chapati and an assortment of Indian chutneys and riata, with a coriander cookie for dessert. It was delicious — I mean, Indian restaurant delicious.
This should not have been a surprise as Singh worked for one of the finest restaurants in Hancock County, The Burning Tree in Otter Creek, for about 15 years. Another night might feature Mile High Tomato Pie (an old Burning Tree offering, the recipe for which is posted on their website) or the most popular, Taco Night.
Although he and Kaur spend a good 20 to 30 hours a week organizing, shopping for, and preparing these meals, they do not do it alone. Dozens of volunteers from all over MDI help out with prep work, cooking and serving under Singh’s direction.
“It’s all very professional” says Carolyn Maches, a registered nurse who drives to Bar Harbor from her Bass Harbor home every Tuesday morning to chop vegetables in the church’s large kitchen. “There is nothing haphazard, everything is beautifully organized and Mahandeva makes it understood what he wants us to do and how to do it the way he wants.”
As social as the actual dinner is, Maches says the behind the scenes scene is equally rewarding.
“I think I meet more interesting, fun people while chopping carrots for a few hours on Tuesday, than I do all the rest of the week,” she laughs.
Kaur says they buy their provisions from local grocery stores and farms with donation money and adds that, in season, people with their own gardens often contribute veggies.
“If we have a surplus, we set up a gleaning table where people can help themselves.”
Sometimes she can even enlist their younger teenagers to help out, and their 18-year-old is following in his dad’s footsteps at the Burning Tree.
At 4 p.m. only a few early birds have already arrived for their supper, but the seats at the long tables slowly begin to fill as more diners trickle in. By 5 it has become a steady stream and a line begins to form. COA students, teens, old folks, complete families of four or five are in that line, waiting for their plates to be filled with delicious Indian cuisine.
Singh and Kaur ARE clearly delighted at how the MDI community at large has responded to their Open Table and are considering more venues.
With that in mind they are planning a special fundraising dinner, and silent auction on Saturday, Feb.1 from 4:30 to 9 p.m. at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor. They will be serving their popular tacos with all the fixings (except meat) a variety of desserts and non-alcoholic beverages and, it’s pretty certain, plenty of music and laughter.
Diners will be asked to contribute $10 with children 8 and under free.
Anyone interested in learning more about this and the Open Table MDI program, volunteer or donor options (not to mention that mile high tomato pie recipe, which is on my menu this week) should go to www.opentablemdi.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Puranjot Kaur.