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Ashton Allen is building community in Hardwick, one meal at a time

A man in a hat standing in a commercial kitchen
Tara Reese
Ashton Allen runs a concrete business when he's not serving meals at the American Legion in Hardwick.

"What class are you?" It's a question that Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman has been asking people for a series about class and cultural divides that we have been publishing all week. This is the last episode of a five-part series. Ashton Allen runs community meals at the American Legion in Hardwick. In this episode, he talks about how eating together can blur class lines and strengthen community ties.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio.

Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.

Ashton (in kitchen): "Let's cover that with tin foil before we bring it out, because I don't want people grabbing at it thinking we're ready. We can't have a big reveal before the chicken comes out."

That's Ashton Allen, right before a community meal that involved eight stuffed pork loins and 120 chicken drumsticks. Ashton runs a concrete business when he's not serving meals at the American Legion in Hardwick. He grew up in Morrisville and spent a lot of time with his grandparents up in Belvedere, population around 358. We sat down to talk about class, which then turned into a conversation about eating, and how eating together as a community seems to blur boundaries between people of different backgrounds. Here’s Ashton.

Erica: "So what class are you?"

Ashton: "I would say probably middle class. I don't have an overabundance of anything, but I'm not broke."

Erica: "What were you growing up?"

Ashton: "I would say we started kind of on the lower end of things. And in '91, my father started his own contracting business. He's a general contractor. After that things were noticeably better. Dinners at home got a little nicer. My parents’ cars got newer. But I feel like one of the wealthiest people in the world because my parents are still together. They still love each other. And I came from an incredible family on both sides, where we actually got together multiple times throughout the year, and we had a support system."

Erica: "When you're little or younger, what are the tensions between kids that have to do with where people come from? Who they're from?"

Ashton: "I guess kids start differentiating themselves by the way they're dressed. And they make assumptions. For us for a while, myself personally, maybe fourth or fifth grade, I remember wearing sweatpants a lot. And I hated them. You know, it's those years where you're growing a lot. My parents didn't have tons of money to be buying new clothes all the time. So jeans weren't the smartest option at that point. You know, your feet are growing. So you're going to be chewing through shoes like nobody's business and — and other clothing. So I remember feeling a little on the outside in those years because of the way I was dressed."

Ashton (in kitchen): "I'd say probably about five minutes, and I can pull these bottom ones out. And then we can have a real show going on here outside."

A man sitting with a beer in front of a bar
Tara Reese
Vermont Public
Ashton at the Hardwick Legion bar

Erica: "We're in the Legion. We're sitting here and it looks like it's kind of the beginning for a community meal that's happening tonight. What do you do here?"

Ashton: "I guess you could say I’m chief cook and bottle washer. We started the whole thing because fuel prices this year were really high. And I've always wanted to cook a Thanksgiving meal and give it away. I guess it was a selfish goal of mine to try that. And we had really good attendance. So we decided to try it again for Christmas.

"And then as fuel prices get more expensive, I talked to the Legionnaires and I said, ‘Look, we have a serious problem.’ In this town specifically, there's a lot of people that are struggling. And we have a lot of old homes. And we have a lot of mobile homes, too. So these people are going to be paying, you know, a lot of money to heat their homes. So if we can do something to help out, provide a meal a month for people, you know, maybe it would take some of the pressure off.

"And the more we've done this, the more I realized that it's bigger than a meal. It really is community. It's people coming in and talking to each other, so they know that there's an older couple that lives a few houses up from them and maybe they're struggling in some way. Maybe they need a little extra help clearing snow that they wouldn't have known before. I mean, when you meet people for the first time, like people do in here, you get a better sense of your town's heartbeat, and a sense of what's needed."

Erica: "What have you learned about this town from working at the Legion?"

Ashton: "I've learned that people thought that this was just a watering hole for drunks. Because at one time when people came back from war, they would find a place to drown their emotions and climb into a bottle of hooch. But we're trying to rebrand ourselves, because that's not what we are. And these community meals are helping with that. If you're meeting neighbors for the first time, that tells me that we're on the right track."

Erica: "You think that that's people's perception out there who haven't been coming here?"

Ashton: "No, I know it's not. I spoke to a guy that actually came to the spaghetti dinner. And then I ran into him down at Aubuchon’s a couple days later. And I told him we had a community meal coming up and he said, ‘Well, I might come up. I don't really think they want people like me over there.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘Well, I don't know. I've never really been in there and it doesn't seem like my place.’ I said, ‘Well, that's why you need to come in, because that's your own idea of what the Legion believes.’ You know, we wouldn't be putting community meals on if we didn't want the community to show up.

They come here, they have a meal, they start talking about the lousy mashed potatoes and they find out who they're living next to.
Ashton Allen

"Everybody eats, so that's an instant conversation starter right there. Whether you like the carrots or you think they taste like s—. Somebody's going to be talking about the carrots. Or somebody's going to talk about the potatoes. And then that can turn into, ‘Well, a lot of Vermont was potato farms.’ We went from mashed potatoes to talking about potato farms to picking potato bugs. And in Vermont — I don't know about other places because I've never lived anywhere else — but we always refer to something as ‘so and so's old place’, or the ‘old Campbell farm,' and that stuff disappears after a while when people bury their heads in their phones for so long. You lose that. So they come here, they have a meal, they start talking about the lousy mashed potatoes and they find out who they're living next to."

Singers: "All right, here's another song I wrote about sugaring. Our parents used to be sugar makers…"

The meal was winding down. Ashton's mother Laureen Allen and her sister Emily Lapan sang a few of their songs while the kitchen volunteers cleared away the carrots and the potatoes.

Erica: "What are you worried about when you look at Vermont towns right now?"

Ashton: "What I worry about is towns losing their charm, going from historic homes with beautiful molding to vinyl sided three-story buildings, four-story buildings that are just full of bedrooms. Without yards for kids to play in like I had. I worry about Belvedere. The store is closed. That was the life of the community. The little churches. There's nobody, not enough people around to go into them anymore, take care of them. I don't want Vermont to lose that. So if having some lousy mashed potatoes helps people talk and save that? Hopefully we're doing the right thing."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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