Neighbors in Leelanau County are finding the link between cultures and generations can be as elemental as sharing a meal. Grab a seat at the monthly potluck at The Friendship Community Center in Suttons Bay.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our magazine library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

a seat at the table with large hall and many people seated at two long tables

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Tonight’s community potluck starts on a high note: a buoyant student group gives a preview to the Suttons Bay High School musical, segueing to the jubilant instrumentals of Leelanau County–based North Bay Celtic Band. The jigs are the potluck soundtrack as volunteers make space on a long table draped in a black-and-white gingham tablecloth for one more dish—deviled eggs in fact—to be dropped off by a late-arriving guest.

The feel-good meal hosted by The Friendship Community Center in Suttons Bay is extra satisfying thanks to tonight’s theme: Home Sweet Home. For some gathered at the long tables that means sharing a taste of their heritage. On good intel, two teens dash over to snag a sliver of homemade boterkoek, a Dutch almond butter cake. The other hit is mov kua dlis, a silken, savory rice and chicken porridge.

a place at the table, kids in front of a table laden with food

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The community center space itself (historically a funeral home turned furniture store turned Grange Hall) has been at home in the village of Suttons Bay since 1853. Parents with wee ones, teen pals, newcomers to the region and active retirees are all here in the historic space to share a smorgasbord of salads and dill pickle rollups, pigs-in-a-blanket, family-recipe empanadas, crumb-topped mac and cheese and two kinds of chicken and dumplings. Bekah TenBrink, executive director of The Friendship Community Center (The Center, for short) once dreamed of teens and seniors sitting together at these potlucks. It has truly become an all-ages show—by design.

The beloved community potlucks—always the first Wednesday of the month—are a tradition at The Center, whose mission in part is to create opportunities for developing an intergenerational legacy between youth and adults in the Leelanau area. When the potlucks made their initial comeback post-pandemic, teens served guests, often creating a natural ice breaker to talk to elders in their community. “It gave them a script, in a way,” shares Audrey Sharp, The Center’s associate director.

The Center also added a twist: representing a different theme or culture each month. It’s a conversation starter.

This November, for instance, The Center is collaborating with Native American community members to provide a variety of traditional dishes. All are welcome to join the meal honoring Indigenous culture and to bring a side, dessert or beverage to share. The Center is encouraging attendees to try out recipes from online collections such as “Healthy Cooking the Anishinaabek Way” created by the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, “Native American Recipes: 25 of Our All-Time Favorites” on or “Chippewa Native American Food Recipes” curated by Amber Case on Pinterest.

a place at the table, happy kids at large table full of food, one child with cream on face

Photo by Allison Jarrell

It’s a pressure-free potluck, and “some are just traditionally ‘the roll person,’” Sharp shares, “but this is also an exploration of different cultures that are especially represented in our local population. And that’s a really cool way to get to know that culture, to be able to prepare or try the cuisine.” TenBrink adds that at a past potluck, one local teen shared their traditional Native American fancy shawl dance.

Pete Farmer and his wife Kate Farmer Sterken of Cedar are typically in attendance with their three kids (who pitched in to bake tonight’s fabulous Dutch almond butter cake).

Farmer says cultivating both multigenerational and multicultural relationships in the Leelanau community is important to them. “We love the place and space to gather with people we live by but may not already know. We also love that it provides an opportunity to celebrate the diversity in our area—we’ve learned about the history of tamales and witnessed Native traditional dancing with our neighbors.”

The Center was founded as a gathering space more than four decades ago, and events like the potlucks have always been a part of its fabric. But their old-fashioned appeal and sheer longevity is not “the sustaining thing,” TenBrink says. “It’s being truly embedded in the community and finding opportunities to make sure everyone feels welcome and celebrated.

“We personally invite people, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going see you at the potluck, right?’ And they’ll come to one and experience the magic and then next time, they’re bringing somebody.” Beyond the food and fellowship, the goal is really to see each other as neighboring residents of this peninsula and to keep open to another perspective. “Gathering and sharing meals as a collective community offers us the chance to meet our neighbor, form friendships and learn about one another,” TenBrink shares.

In a big way, she adds, “We need that back and forth of each generation supporting each other.” Happily, that has been a natural outcropping of the potlucks in the form of senior-and-teen pen pal clubs, homework labs and “Tech Tuesdays.”

a place at the table, people serving themselves food from various crocks and pots, long table, checkered tablecloth

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Leelanau Investing For Teens (LIFT) is The Center’s flagship youth program offering out-of-schooltime programming for 6th through 12th graders. LIFT teens are frequent fliers at the monthly potlucks and are reaping the benefits of the relationships made there.

“At homework lab on Wednesdays, retirees in the community are volunteering to help students with homework,” Sharp explains. “A lot of kids come in and they’ll be kind of stone-faced with us, but that breaks down for someone who’s older and they are willing to accept that help a little better.”

The Center also holds Tech Tuesdays at local libraries. Through ShareCare of Leelanau, seniors can bring their phones or computers and ask tech-savvy teens anything. “The give-and-take here is unbelievable,” TenBrink says.

The remaining dates and themes for this year’s community potlucks are Sept. 13, Fiesta Latina; Oct. 4, Soups and Chilis; Nov. 1, Native American Heritage. All potlucks start at 6 p.m. at The Friendship Community Center (201 Broadway St., Suttons Bay.)

Tips For a Carefree Community Potluck

Yep, it takes more than a little luck (and amazing volunteers) to gather neighbors around a communal table, but The Center’s potlucks follow a surprisingly straightforward formula. Associate Director Audrey Sharp shares tips for other communities to replicate:

  • Consistency. People count on the same time/day each month. Stick to the same set-up/format of tables and chairs each time.
  • Keep an inventory of plates, silverware, napkins, serving utensils, tablecloths and takeout containers. Slowly accumulate decorations for annually recurring themes.
  • Pick themes and share them a month in advance. (Facebook events and posts, Instagram posts and stories, in local newspapers’ schedules.)
  • Inspire home cooks with suggestions for on-theme dishes each month. If being careful about cultural appropriation, we get very specific with recipes. If it’s something a little more general such as summer barbecue, we would suggest a list of classic sides.
  • Ask teens in the community to help serve. National Honor Society students at local schools sign up for set-up and clean-up each month.
  • Recruit key members of the community to extend personal invitations to people who have not joined yet.

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell