I paid five bucks to attend the fundraiser potluck dinner. I drove into the woods of West Florida until I found a tiny chapel with mildewed aluminum siding, a recently mowed lawn, and a smattering of modest, earth-tone-colored vehicles parked out front.
I entered the itty-bitty fellowship hall. I deposited my suggested five-dollar donation into the basket. I was hugged by a woman named Margie who smelled of Chanel No. 5 and fried poultry. I was handed a paper plate.
“We’re glad you could make it, Mister Writer You,” said Margie. Then she winked. Although I’m not sure why.
The buffet was the size of a landing strip, the table’s surface was weighted with enough casseroles to compromise the foundation. You’ve never seen such a spread. And it was all organized according to category.
You had your chicken dishes—lemon chicken casserole, chicken divan, fried chicken, chicken à la King of Kings.
There were the cold salads—butter bean salad, corn salad, potato salad, pasta salad, and a host of other concoctions from your granny’s recipe-card box.
The dessert table was ridiculous. The church ladies were just showing off. Many of the desserts I’d never even heard of, and I thought I’d seen it all.
There were various exotic delights with names like cappuccino cream cake, Georgia Pawnee pecan pie, tiramisu brownies, and lemon icebox pie, otherwise known as “Baptist crack.”
There were pound cakes of every persuasion— blueberry, strawberry, chocolate, banana-mango. And, oh yeah, strawberry pretzel salad. Enough said.
There were, of course, the occasional Tupperware containers filled with store bought fare, rumored to be purchased from the Piggly Wiggly. Nobody touched this stuff. Bringing store-bought food to a covered-dish gathering is a grievous sin, and grounds for horsewhipping, punishable by mandatory nursery duty.
One poor woman brought a seven-layer Publix cake. I heard that she was later asked to resign from the Monday night women’s Bible study.
Nobody was more excited about the meal than the elderly pastor. He was your quintessential clergyman with silver Andy Griffith hair and a thick drawl you could have used to pave a county highway. He waited at the back of the line until all the women and children had helped themselves. Old school.
“My favorite stuff is the pretzel salad,” he remarked, loosening his tie. “I’m about to put a hurting on it.”
It had been so long since I had seen people together like this, eating this way, laughing, it almost felt illicit. This little room was full of such brightness. The same kind of glee you experienced from childhood.
Maybe that’s why I had such a good time; it was like time travel.
The main characters were all there, too. Characters that never change throughout the years, no matter how old I become. They are the same in every town, every region, every group.
The old guy with the plaid short sleeve shirt, jeans and suspenders—every church has one of these. He probably wears Merrells, too.
The old lady with the coiffed hair and the too-tight polyester pants that practically scream “Belk, 1979.”
The gal who brings lime-and-marshmallow congealed salad to every single function even though this dish looks about as appetizing as a septic tank.
The fella who wears a Hawaiian shirt and blue blazer and passes out Billy Graham tracts to adults but Tootsie Rolls to children.
The young people. Teenage girls in the corner, who avoid making eye contact with teenage boys in the opposite corner.
The toddlers who, no matter how many times their parents threaten them with corporal punishment, keep banging on the upright piano keys so that the custodian has to lock the lid.
The middle-aged dads out back, sneaking cigarettes under the guise of “going out to the car for a second.”
My favorite part of the supper, however, was the prayer. The minister let the children lead the prayer. Everyone bowed their heads. Margie took my hand. Things got quiet.
Grandmothers held grandchildren. Young parents bounced babies on their hips and reminded their young ones to “Ssshhh.”
And the children led us in a musical prayer, done to the tune of “Frére Jaques”:
“God our father, God our father, once again…”
Everyone began singing. I had to glance around the room just to observe the tableau.
Because, you see, during the pandemic I was afraid we’d almost lost this. At one point last year, I thought the hard times had changed us forever.
I thought we’d never get hugs back. I thought we’d lost covered-dish socials. I’m glad I was wrong. For these are the traditions that once brought me back to life when I was a lost kid.
I was the son of a dead man. Sometimes I felt ostracized. I often saw myself as an outsider. I was chubby and awkward. Redheaded and shy. But here, at potluck suppers, in these little rooms, I have always belonged. I still do, I guess.
So it was nice. It was nice being in a room with 80 kinds of chicken casserole. It was nice to know that the pastimes I cherish are still here. It was nice to be reminded that food prepared by loving hands is so much more than mere food.
It was the best five bucks I ever spent.