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Howard senior cooks a communal meal to bring her neighbors together


It's 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and residents of the Owen Brown Place Apartments, a senior apartment complex in Columbia, file into the community hall where the smoky-sweet smell of ham promises a good lunch.

In the kitchen, Christine Bradley, 82, and Chris Bliss, 83, put finishing touches on the meal, making sure the ham stays hot, warming the rolls and tending to the vegetables.

Mrs. Bradley, a former delicatessen owner with her husband, has worked hard to prepare food for about 50 residents of the apartment complex, a luncheon and social event she turns out each week.

But she insists that the luncheon is a team effort, with each of her five helpers doing everything from cutting pies to serving those who cannot serve themselves.

It's a weekly tradition that began 10 years ago, when Mrs. Bradley and her husband, Dallas, moved from Baltimore County to Owen Brown Place and found the social scene a little too quiet.

"It was a Saturday and it was so lonesome," recalls Mrs. Bradley. "I told my husband, 'We need a little something going on here.' "

Taking matters into her own kitchen, Mrs. Bradley cooked up that "something," in the form of a communal meal for her neighbors.

"A lot of people here don't get out much," she says. "My husband and I decided to start what we called 'Meet-Your-Neighbor' luncheons. Every Saturday morning, I would cook a buffet so that people could meet each other. At that time, we started out with about 10 to 15 people every week."

Today, the Saturday lunches have become an anticipated social event, with Mrs. Bradley still doing the cooking.

Her husband died six years ago and she has retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive degenerative disease of the eye. But she still plans menus, shops and prepares the food.

"I've been cooking for 60 years and I don't need to see," laughs Mrs. Bradley.

And with the help of her friend and neighbor, Mrs. Bliss, and four other volunteers, the buffet lunch runs as smoothly as her whipped potatoes, supplemented by the dishes residents bring to share.

"We try to let people know ahead of time what we are having so that they can bring a dish that will coordinate with the main one," Mrs. Bradley says. "If they can't bring food, they will give whatever they can afford in order to cover expenses."

And when expenses outstrip the money available, Mrs. Bradley will raffle off an item that has been donated, such as a coffee urn.

"The whole idea is to be getting people out of their apartments," says Mrs. Bliss, who has been helping Mrs. Bradley organize the buffet since it began. "If it weren't for the Saturday buffet, people would eat junk food."

Marian Trede, an 82-year-old resident who has lived at Owen Brown Place since 1982, rarely misses a Saturday lunch.

"It's one of the bright spots and something that most of us look forward to," she says. "It's a chance to get out of the apartment and to meet other residents and there's always a delicious meal."

Being careful to serve healthy meals, Mrs. Bradley includes sugar-free items for diabetics and doesn't add salt when she is cooking. Mainstays include roast beef and mashed potatoes, barbecue on rolls with potato salad or ham and sweet potatoes.

Leftovers are divided among the residents and given to those who are sick or who are unable to make it to the Saturday buffets.

Aside from the fellowship of eating, diners can always expect to play a game after the meal. And during the first Saturday of each month, birthdays are celebrated, with the added treat of a birthday cake baked by one of the residents, ice cream and a table or two full of desserts.

The luncheons are canceled sometimes when the community hall is otherwise booked. When that happens the residents are disappointed -- and so are the luncheon's sponsors.

"When I don't have the lunches, I really miss them," Mrs. Bradley says. "I like to cook and I like to do things for people."

Mrs. Bliss agreed. "It's what keeps us going," she says.

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