Tom Ross: Eating dinner with strangers

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— When I show up at a community picnic or a business luncheon, I typically push myself outside my comfort zone and sit down next to someone I don't recognize. A stranger.

Sometimes it results in a stimulating conversation. Other times, the verbal exchange is pleasantly awkward. Or maybe it's awkwardly pleasant. Either way, it's good to share a meal with a stranger and attempt to get them to tell you their secrets.

Just Friday I met a pleasant stranger named Lynne Garell, who is asking me to take this dining with strangers thing to a whole 'nother level.

Garell and her friend Lynn Ross-Bryant have undertaken an informal movement they call Pass the Bread - Celebrating Community, 100 Dinners at a Time. Pass the Bread is not a 501(c)(3), it's not a club, it has no religious affiliation - it's just a small group of community members trying to bring this rapidly changing community a little closer together.

Garell and Ross-Bryant want me and 99 other people in Routt County to host dinner parties for 8 to 10 guests, roughly half of whom should be complete strangers, preferably from different walks of life. That's not all. Lynne and Lynn have the nerve to dictate that the dinner party must be held June 26. And we're not supposed to engage in meaningless chitchat.

Instead, Garell said, the idea is to cut across social divisions in Steamboat by initiating a dinner conversation. Ideally, it would be a conversation about what we like most about living in Routt County and things we can do to make the community better than it already is.

"We felt it was really important that this (conversation) happen with food," Garell said. "In human history there has been a lot of spiritual significance attached to sharing a meal. It's sitting down and taking the time to eat a carefully prepared meal and have thoughtful conversation."

Pass the Bread had its genesis two years ago when a couple of longtime community members, David Epstein and Carole Milligan, had a chance encounter.

Epstein recalls that the encounter took place at a meeting of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley in the old Community Center along Soda Creek.

Epstein was standing in an informal gathering and making the academic argument that the growing numbers of increasingly wealthy people moving to the Yampa Valley would inevitably change the community. Epstein is a fifth-generation Coloradan who came here 14 years ago to work in the hay business and manage ranches. He made his point without rancor.

"I'm actually kind of neutral on the subject," Epstein said. "We were talking about how the dynamic of the community is changing and has been changing for many years. Certain areas of town are wealthier than others, and we talked about the need to get people together to share ideas."

Milligan was listening in, and when she heard Epstein posit that affluent residents of the county were changing the social fabric she chimed in: "You might be talking about me," she told Epstein.

Coincidentally, Milligan, a physician, moved here 14 years ago from the Bay Area after selling a radiology/oncology practice. She is the medical director at Hospice of Northwest Colorado and serves on the ethics committee at Yampa Valley Medical Center. Understandably, she feels like she's making a contribution to the community.

However, Milligan agrees that Epstein has a point.

She finds that her own social circle consists of people she met within two or three years of arriving here, when all of them were looking for new friends. Affluent people like her tend to meet through activities like flying, skiing and perhaps golf, Milligan said.

"Some of these activities do sort of set up a class structure," she pointed out.

Lynne and Lynn have firm commitments from 17 dinner hosts with another 23 teetering on the brink. So they are looking for another 60 dinner hosts well in advance of June 26. They are prepared to give advice on how to invite strangers to dinner, including a list of cooperating community organizations. You might also consider asking four people or couples who are already acquaintances to each bring people who are strangers to you, for dinner.

Interested strangers may go here, or e-mail passthebreadcelebratecommunity@gmail.com. They are also welcome to call Garell at 970-879-2767 or Ross-Bryant at 303-817-1855.

Milligan is attracted to the idea of Pass the Bread as a way to cross as many community barriers as possible.

"We are part of one community. We can do this together and share the things that make this a community we want to stay in," she said.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today.

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