Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Church dinners turn strangers into friends




By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Some already call him “chicken man.”

        Last summer, we introduced you to Carl Heilmann of Delhi Township, who for 11 years has been faithfully attending and enjoying chicken dinners in Ohio and Indiana — as many as 10 dinners every summer.

        Mr. Heilmann loves the food and fellowship so much, he was probably the first to create a Web site (www.thinkingchicken.com) devoted to church chicken dinners in 1995.

DINNER SCHEDULE
    If you want to experience a church chicken dinner this weekend, Mr. Heilmann's Web site lists a meal hosted by Holy Guardians Angels Church in Cedar Grove, Ind., 3-6 p.m. (EST) Saturday. Information: (765) 647-6981.
    On Labor Day (Sept. 3), St. Peter's Church near Brookville, Ind., hosts perhaps the largest church dinner, 10:45 a.m.-2:45 p.m. (slow time). (812) 623-3670. For more information, see www.thinkingchicken.com.
        A part-time computer consultant at the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Heilmann built the chicken dinner Web site for “practice,” when the technology was relative new. Since then, his motives have evolved.

        “My enjoyment of food comes from sharing it with others,” says Mr. Heilmann, who has to remove the fried skin from chicken before eating it because of a cholesterol problem. “I can't remember a time at these dinners when I didn't strike up a conversation with someone I didn't know, without even trying.“

        He named his Web site “thinkingchicken.com” because he wanted to help people remember the good times in their lives. And for him, “thinking about chicken” evokes good times with family and friends.

        On his Web site, which he revised last year, Mr. Heilmann lists 29 dinners by date and location, and includes vital information such as price, whether the dining hall is air-conditioned and menu highlights.

        Growing up in Lawrenceburg and the west side of Cincinnati, his German-immigrant parents took him to church dinners as a child. He didn't enjoy them then, and stopped going as a teen-ager.

        But he rediscovered the meals a decade ago, after a neighbor told him about a dinner in Indiana, and then another friend impressed him with a batch of church-made turtle soup.

        In 1990, Mr. Heilmann and his wife, Edith, went to a family-style dinner at St. Nicholas Church in Sunman. They sat at a table with eight strangers, but soon they were passing the food and carrying on conversation.

        Five years later, Mr. Heilmann started compiling his list of dinners by talking to friends and searching for church fliers advertising the meals. Equipped with a list of Catholic churches in the area, he sent out surveys to come up with a list of six dinners that first year.

        Mr. Heilmann receives no payment for his service — not even a free dinner. No one recognizes him as chicken man, and he prefers it that way.

        For those who want to start a tradition of attending church dinners, Mr. Heilmann says generally, the sooner you arrive at the door, the shorter the wait. Otherwise, he advises novices to “just relax.”

        “Don't be shy,” he says. “Just show up and get in line. Enjoy yourself, and pass the potatoes.”
       



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