Comfort Food: Friendship dinners fill Cisco and Eastland with homemade meals and companionship

by Susan Moses

North Texas Catholic

Who wants a home-cooked meal and a relaxed conversation? Everyone does — seniors, singles, families, and students. 

And everyone is welcome at the friendship dinners in Cisco and Eastland, organized by Pete and Val Loftin, parishioners at Holy Rosary in Cisco.

When they organized and cooked their first friendship dinner in October 2016, only two people showed up. “They got waited on very well, and we had a lot of leftovers to take home,” said Pete.

But the retired ranchers didn’t call it quits. They continued their efforts, convinced that the Cisco community hungered for togetherness as much as a meal. They were right. 

Now, with an average of 70 in attendance, the monthly suppers have outgrown the parish hall and moved to the town’s community center. The success in Cisco encouraged the couple to introduce friendship dinners to Eastland last fall. 

“Our motto is ‘come join us for a free meal and conversation. Everyone is welcome,’” Pete said.

The meal nourishes the body, but the companionship nourishes the spirit. The Loftins encourage conversation by serving dessert 30 minutes after the meal and drawing for raffle prizes at the end of the hour. 

Discussion after the meal is Pete’s favorite part of the evening, “seeing different people open up a little bit to their community, to other communities, not just their little group.”

THE FRIENDLY STATE

Pete and Val Loftin
Pete and Val Loftin (NTC/Jayme Donahue) See more photos of the friendship dinners.

Having raised three children, the Loftins settled in Cisco about 15 years ago, enticed by affordable land prices after decades of living in California. The city’s location on Interstate 20 provided easy access to horse shows.

They quickly set down roots in their adopted town of roughly 4,000. Val served as the director of religious education at Holy Rosary, and Pete led the choir and helped with the youth program — all before he converted to Catholicism a few years ago. Since joining the Church, he also teaches CCD and Confirmation classes.

They think the friendship dinners have enhanced the visibility and reputation of the Catholic Church in these towns roughly 100 miles west of Fort Worth. 

Val shared that when she moved to Cisco, which is made up largely of Protestants, she asked the owner of the feed store where to find the Catholic Church. He replied that he didn’t know. She laughed, “And it was one street behind him!”

Only a handful of those who attend the Cisco meal are Catholic. Pete said, “It’s opened up the community’s eyes a little bit that we are a growing concern out here, and we’re not crazy people.”

HELP WANTED
The friendship dinners have also provided members at the two parishes a unique opportunity to serve. New members of the parish who want a small commitment, mothers with kids in tow — everyone can find a way to help by cooking, pouring drinks, setting a table, or creating a basket for the raffle. And if those still sound difficult? “Just sit there and eat with people. That’s your job,” said Val with a grin.

Although the Loftins plan and organize each meal, a team of cooks in the kitchen helps prepare and serve the food, taking no shortcuts with the homemade roast beef, spaghetti, or meatloaf, all served with vegetables and side dishes. An anonymous benefactor covers the cost of the ingredients.

Dr. Kevin Cunningham, a family practice physician based in Eastland, offers medical services at the friendship dinners. He explained that by working in a medically underserved area, he “tries to be available — not available just to those with insurance, but also to those without.”

At each location, several take advantage of the opportunity to have their blood pressure and blood sugar checked or to be evaluated for minor respiratory illnesses.

AN ACT OF GRACE

Pete Loftin at head of tablePete Loftin at head of table
Organizer Pete Loftin sits down to eat with guests at the Conrad N. Hilton Center in Cisco, which was the first Hilton Hotel building. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)


Although each meal starts with the Sign of the Cross and a blessing, “we don’t push any spiritual aspects,” said Pete. “I’ve always felt you’re a better Christian by showing people how you live instead of pushing it on them, so that’s what we’ve done with the friendship meal. I think that’s surprised some that we don’t have a sermon. We have a good meal and tell everybody, ‘Come back next month.’”

Pete and Val, who met at a horse show, downplay their ministry of meals, saying they merely “do the things we know: cooking and getting people together.” However, they admit that coordinating and shopping for the meals, served on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, is a large commitment at a stage in life when many slow down.

But Pete, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday, said, “I don’t think you can out-do God. You just have to stay busy. The more you do for your community out of selflessness, you can’t help but feel closer to God.”

Pete and Val Loftin

Who wants a home-cooked meal and a relaxed conversation? Everyone does — seniors, singles, families, and students. 

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