DUMMERSTON -- On Wednesday at Evening Star Grange, Linda Hellus cooked her "signature meal" for local seniors for the last time -- pork roast, cabbage casserole, potatoes and carrots.
There was just one thing missing -- Hellus' famous carrot cake. That's because, on her final day as a Grange cook, she was presented with a cake and many expressions of gratitude for her years of culinary service both to the Grange and to Senior Solutions.
"They figure that I have done over 10,000 meals for Dummerston," Hellus said after celebrating her retirement from regular duty. "It sounds like a lot when it's all over and done with."
Hellus knows her way around a farm and a kitchen: She worked the family's Upper Dummerston Road property and raised four children with her husband, Henry.
"I've always cooked -- cooked basic and cooked big," she said.
Hellus also has an urge to volunteer, so it follows that -- after years as a volunteer for Windham County Humane Society -- she decided to get involved with community meals.
She cooked for a time in Williamsville before offering her help at Evening Star Grange in Dummerston.
"I started by washing dishes, because I was too scared to do anything else," she said.
Around 2002, Hellus recalls, she began cooking the big meals. Grange Master Larry Lynch Jr., who will be taking over cooking duties for Senior Solutions meals, said Hellus has been "a real mainstay really for any meal we have going on."
That includes twice-monthly senior lunches -- one sponsored by Senior Solutions and the other by the Grange.
"Dummerston is one of the most highly attended and anticipated lunches," Lynch said. "It's just invaluable work that she did."
Hellus takes a modest, no-frills approach to that work, which involves cooking for an average of 60 people for the popular lunches.
"It's not that I had any particular skill area," she said. "The Grange cooking was so perfect -- you didn't have to be concerned about something exotic. You can tell what it is."
That's not to say that Hellus doesn't take her work seriously. Even on Wednesday, after so many meals served, Hellus was stressing over the quality and quantity of the pork roast.
When there was just enough food for all, and everyone seemed satisfied, "there was this incredible feeling of relief," Hellus said with a laugh. "I came through with an unblemished career."
She knows how important a simple, low-cost meal can be: The suggested senior-meal donation is just $3 for those 60 and over, and there is a $4 charge for anyone under that age.
Hellus praised the efforts of Senior Solutions -- formerly known as the Council on Aging for Southeastern Vermont -- to keep those meals going. A list of Senior Solutions meals and other services is available at www.seniorsolutionsvt.org.
"The biggest key is -- this is your government dollar at work -- you really must work within the budget (for the meals)," Hellus said. "In this day and age, it's increasingly going to get more difficult."
For Hellus, it was becoming more difficult -- even with the help of her sister -- to keep performing her volunteer work. She is 73, and she said her "physical abilities have become somewhat challenged."
There also is an emotional aspect to her decision to hang up her Grange apron.
"I can't even begin to estimate how many people I have met -- friends through the meals -- who have passed over the last 10 years," she said. "That kind of catches up to you. You become concerned for your own mortality."
So Hellus is content to spend most time at her home: For her, it is "the greatest spot in the world, and I would never consider leaving."
She's also not leaving the Grange entirely, offering to help out here and there when needed. Hellus believes that "you can't beat a Grange meal."
"When you can make people happy simply by putting nice food in front of them -- they're appreciative, and they're happy, and that makes me happy," she said. "Food is all about being happy."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.