Food People

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.

40 comments

  1. Cynthia - July 21, 2021 9:30 am

    I can’t wait for my church to resume fellowship dinners. I think they’re like glue.

    Reply
  2. Anita - July 21, 2021 10:14 am

    Lime-and- marshmallow congealed salad really took me back. Thank you for this reminder of the best moments of my childhood.

    Reply
  3. Ann - July 21, 2021 11:07 am

    I’m sooooooo glad your spark has returned 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻🥰

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  4. Ronetc - July 21, 2021 12:34 pm

    “He waited at the back of the line until all the women and children had helped themselves. Old school.” You must be much younger than I thought: “old school” would be men first, then children, then women (although some of the women would have eaten back in the kitchen while supposedly just preparing the food . . . then would pretend that they were on a diet was the only reason they did not fill a plate themselves).

    Reply
    • Cindy Turner - July 21, 2021 2:22 pm

      Every second Sunday in June we have “Dinner on the Ground “. The pandemic stopped it last year so glad to be back to this way of life. I love your writing.

      Reply
  5. Nancy Crews - July 21, 2021 12:49 pm

    ❤your writing.

    Reply
  6. Debbie g - July 21, 2021 12:53 pm

    Our use to be church dinners too. Good people good times. I miss them And I’m glad you still found this one ❤️❤️❤️

    Reply
  7. Hudginsk3@gmail.com - July 21, 2021 12:58 pm

    Wow, this brought back so many wonderful memories of my childhood and early adolescent years. In the early 60’s, my dad pastored a little Baptist church in Sylvania, GA. I was only 4 years old, but even today I remember the built-in picnic tables and benches underneath three or four huge oak trees across the dirt road from the white clapboard church. It was in that spot where the casseroles, fresh vegetables, desserts, etc, etc. were placed once per month after Sunday morning service. As the years have gone by, I lived most of my life in the suburbs of medium size towns in South Carolina. Yes, there were potlucks, but they never matched the ones of my memory from those days in Sylvania. I can’t remember what I had for yesterday’s lunch, but I can remember those days from about 55 years ago. Thanks for a vivid portrayal for those who may never have experienced such a wonderful gathering.

    Reply
    • Kate - July 21, 2021 1:36 pm

      My first college roommate was from Doerun, Georgia and I remember going home with her and going to church with her. Her best friend was from Sylvania. Such special places they called home.

      Reply
      • Keith - July 21, 2021 2:28 pm

        Isn’t that true! We attended a homecoming service a couple of decades later. They had built a little brick sanctuary next to the original clapboard chuch. The potlock was held in the air conditioned fellowship hall that day (thank goodness!), but the food and the wonderful people were still the same.

        Reply
  8. Jan - July 21, 2021 1:15 pm

    Beautiful … I could see everything you saw and have the same feelings just as though I was right there beside you. Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  9. JonDragonfly - July 21, 2021 1:38 pm

    I’ve eaten in some pretty fine restaurants, from New York to Beijing to Sydney, but the best eatin’ in the world is any church covered dish supper.

    Reply
  10. Suellen - July 21, 2021 1:43 pm

    I am a sociable person. I just plain love people. I am a hugger. I wasn’t at one time but grew to understand the importance of hugs. The last year and a half has been hard on all of us. I worried whether we would ever be the same again. Fortunately for me, people within my circle are just as hungry to get back to normal and are maybe even more willing to give hugs. How we’ve missed each other! You brought tears to my eyes again this morning.

    Reply
  11. Paul McCutchen - July 21, 2021 1:43 pm

    That sounded great. I hope to make it to one of those soon.

    Reply
  12. Kate - July 21, 2021 1:54 pm

    Growing up my family attended a small primitive baptist church in Tampa Florida. The fellowship hall was almost as large as the church and I remember the fellowship dinners there so well. Everyone always hoped the preacher would not call on a certain person to pray, but he always did. “Brother” Stewart loved the lord and his prayers were long and full of thanksgiving. But for children the prayer was sooooo long. What wonderful people and wonderful food. Thanks for the memories. I think that is one thing that makes you so special. You help us remember all those special times that were good and were blessings although at the time we did not realize it. As I read your columns I am constantly uplifted by the grace and love of those you encounter and I am reminded that I have been blessed from that grace and love so many times. Perhaps that is your gift, reminding us of the love and grace that is timeless and endures. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. Daisy - July 21, 2021 1:57 pm

    “A smattering of earth tone cars”. I love the way you wrtie.

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  14. Stephanie - July 21, 2021 2:06 pm

    When I was kid I would just grab the stuff that looked least ingredienty. You know, a chicken leg, chips, dessert… nothing touching.

    As an adult I wonder how can I fit this all on my plate? How can I get the recipe, I mean really get it. I wonder how certain ingredients mixed together could be such a culinary delight… and why am I just experiencing this now. Never do I worry about calories, nutrition or what’s gonna make me fat because a potluck like the one you described is a pass to all that nonsense.

    And while eating the smorgasbord, I never fail to think about how my dad said if you take it, you gotta eat it. And I’ve been cleaning my plate ever since.

    Signed,
    Foodie for life

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  15. Hope Ewans - July 21, 2021 2:11 pm

    Amen Sean.

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  16. AlaRedClayGirl - July 21, 2021 2:26 pm

    This brought back a lot of delicious memories. Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  17. Drew G Travis - July 21, 2021 2:52 pm

    Sean, I so appreciate your words and the way you put them together. Might I have your permission to use this in our church newsletter, with credit to you of course?

    Reply
  18. Doris W Drummond - July 21, 2021 3:07 pm

    What a great reminder of times past; although just last month NFUMC had a covered dish dinner for the benefit of helpers in the tornado cleanup in Newnan. It was grand how you have now reminded me of my life as a UMC ministers wife and the varied church suppers I have attended!

    Reply
  19. Bob E - July 21, 2021 3:07 pm

    Definitely worth more than 5 bucks – the ‘company’ alone is priceless.

    Reply
  20. Robyn - July 21, 2021 3:11 pm

    Thank you Sean – I needed today’s column. Did you write it just for me? Someday soon I hope to be at one of those suppers…

    Reply
  21. Sue - July 21, 2021 3:11 pm

    Thank you for making my day a little brighter🙏🏻👏👍🥰

    Reply
  22. Connie - July 21, 2021 4:12 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful time. There’s not much better than an old fashioned potluck dinner, where all the ladies pull out all the stops and show off a bit. Thanks for taking us along.

    Reply
  23. Stacey Wallace - July 21, 2021 4:13 pm

    Sean, thanks for the memories I have of covered dish dinners at my home church, Orr Street Baptist in Alexander City, Alabama. “Eleck” City to the locals. Those long tables of great Southern cooking were prepared by the sweetest souls on earth. Thanks again for making me smile.

    Reply
  24. Ginny - July 21, 2021 5:05 pm

    HaHa! Pretzel salad belongs on the salad table:). Healthy!

    Reply
  25. Linda Moon - July 21, 2021 5:43 pm

    “Oh my goodness” is a phrase I usually reserve for my cat’s tricks. But, my goodness, the thought of tiramisu brownies brought joy like the cat-tricks do. Have you been to a church near me located on a bluff? Some of this food and the pastor you described is a lot like Baptists I know and love there on the Bluff. My childhood church for this daughter of a beloved but troubled man was a lot like the one you described, Writer. Next time you’re in my town, go to the church and the Piggly Wiggly there on the Bluff. Amazing Grace is in this story. We’re found, Mister Sean of the South.

    Reply
  26. NancyB - July 21, 2021 7:45 pm

    Oh, Sean–So many memories! My “growing up Baptist church” was just like this. You took what you would have fixed for your usual Sunday dinner, then you added a couple of extra dishes in case there were visitors who stayed for the meal. All were welcomed! End result–enough food to “feed the 5,000” without the benefit of Jesus’ miraculous power. Almost every dish started from farm fresh meats, produce (this might have been home-canned if out-of-season), eggs–only things not grown on a farm came from a grocery store. Summer potlucks were the best because everything was fresh from the garden! My church had the best pie bakers in the tri-state area. Chocolate, butterscotch, peanut butter, pecan, peach, blackberry, strawberry, gooseberry, apple, pumpkin, custard–all made with homemade crust, meringue or whipped cream. Children who needed help filling their plates went through the line first so Mom/Dad could help, followed by the men, rest of the children and teens, and finally the women. BUT we didn’t have any dummy women in our church, oh, no. They would get their desserts first and eat them in the kitchen area while waiting to go through the food line! I’m sitting here now picturing the tables groaning under the onslaught of these wonderful cooks and bakers. I’ve never been a part of a church since that does potlucks like my home church! Thanks for the memories Now I’m homesick and hungry! (I was blessed to learn how to cook and bake under the tutelage of many of these kind women.)

    Reply
  27. Mm Tiller - July 21, 2021 8:19 pm

    Thank you, Sean.

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  28. Tim House - July 21, 2021 8:20 pm

    Elicits great memories here, too.

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  29. eliz - July 21, 2021 8:20 pm

    And don’t bring a store bought dish….so very true! Still holds true to this day. Thanks for the memories!

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  30. Patricia Gibson - July 21, 2021 8:27 pm

    Love the memories ❤️

    Reply
  31. Cheryl Buchanan - July 21, 2021 10:43 pm

    Amen!

    Reply
  32. Susan - July 21, 2021 11:39 pm

    I’m a big fan of church pot lucks and all things homemade, but I never turn down Publix cake. This from an avid baker.

    Reply
  33. Peggy ALEXANDER - July 22, 2021 12:09 am

    Oh what sweet memories you bring up Sean. I can just see the little white Pentecostal Country Church and the tables under the big oak trees spread with good country food. Children ( me one of them) running around. We called it All day service and dinner on the ground😂..Most of those good people are gone now but not their memories. Thanks again. I ❤️ Your writing ✍️

    Reply
  34. Carol miller - July 22, 2021 4:19 am

    Amen! And I am the WMU director so I should know. Never ever ever bring a store bought cake to a pot luck

    Reply
  35. DiAn - July 23, 2021 2:07 am

    Hallelujah! Only one word to say – [make that two] – and “AMEN.”

    Reply
  36. Buddy Caudill - July 23, 2021 3:32 am

    I Agree

    Reply
  37. Dot - July 24, 2021 2:35 pm

    Thank you for bringing back to life such wonderful life memories, from childhood to old age. One comment is that this is glue, it’s so true. God bless and keep you.

    Reply

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