Sarepta

Sarepta was originally called Zarephath, meaning “a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals.” It was a small Phoenician town, near present-day Surafend (or Sarafend), about a mile from the Mediterranean coast, almost midway on the road between Tyre and Sidon. It is mentioned for the first time in the voyage of an Egyptian in the fourteenth century B.C. Sennacherib captured it in 701 B.C. (Schrader, “Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament”, 1883, pp. 200 and 288). Sarepta, despite its inconsiderance, has the high distinction of being named in both the Old Testament and the New. We learn from I Kings, 7:8-24, that it was subject to Sidon in the time of Achab and that the Prophet Elias, after having multiplied the meal and oil of a poor woman, raised her son from the dead. The charity of this widow was recalled by Christ (Luke 4:26). It was probably near this place that Christ cured the daughter of the Chanaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman whose faith He praised (Mark 7:24-30).

Sarepta is mentioned also by Josephus (“Ant. jud.”, VIII, xiii, 2); Pliny (Hist. natur., V, 17); the “Itinerarium Burdigalense; the “Onomasticon” of Eusebius and St. Jerome; by Theodosius and Pseudo-Antoninus who, in the sixth century calls it a small town, but very Christian (Geyer, “Intinera hierosolymitana”, Vienna, 1898, 18, 147, 150). It contained at that time a church dedicated to St. Elias. The “Notitia episcopatuum” of Antioch in the sixth century speaks of Sarepta as a suffragan see of Tyre (Echos d’Orient, X, 145); none of its bishops are known. Some Latin bishops, but merely titulars, are mentioned after 1346 (Eubel, “Hierarchia catholica medii aevi”, I, 457; II, 253; III, 310; “Revue benedictine”, XXI, 281, 345-53, 353-65; XXIV, 72). In 1185, the “Green Monk” Phocas (De locis sanctis, 7) found the town almost in its ancient condition; a century later, according to Burchard, it was in ruins and contained only seven or eight houses (Descriptio Terrae sanctae, II, 9). Sarepta was erected into a bishopric by the Crusaders, who raised a chapel over the reputed spot where Elijah restored the widow’s child. In the twelfth century it seems to have been a fortified city with a port and some stately buildings. Today, Sarepta is known as Khirbet Sarfend, between Tyre and Sidon, on the seashore; the ruins show that the town extended 1800 metres north and south, but that it was not very wide.

Giordano, Luca; Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath; Glasgow Museums

The Ground and the Fury

Dinners on the grounds were once held on rickety tables between the church and cemetery where words of loss and remonstrance faded and food offered redemption and reward.

Though ostensibly polite pastoral get-togethers, dinners on the grounds were more often platforms for social clambering of the pettiest and most vicious sort. Despite the communal reason for the food, there was always an underlying competitive element to the affair. Food Network competitions pale in comparison to those rural stages of venomous culinary put-downs; knocking a recent wok wonder off prime time seems trivial when you’re dealing with decades of spite. Every square foot of splintered table space was contested and every element of a good “spread” subjected to off-stage critique. Transgressors were damned for such cardinal sins as using Jell-O pudding mix instead of homemade custard, and if you brought fried chicken in that red-and-white cardboard bucket, you would not get any sympathy when your high heels got stuck in an ant bed.

The queens of these community catfights took inordinate pride in lording over the lesser. My distant Cousin Dora’s angel food cake was a marvel to see. She displayed it on her grandmother’s cut-glass (not crystal; her crystal did not travel) cake stand beside a bowl of macerated strawberries and sweetened cream that she had her husband Harvey whip on site after he had driven 50 miles wearing a tie the whole way. The cake, flanked by a vase with a fistful of her show-quality roses and fortified by something along the lines of a fudge divinity she just “threw together at the last minute”, was displayed on a creaseless, delicately-patterned white cloth. Dora sliced it with a wooden-handled sponge cake cutter and served it on Classic White Chinet. Everyone hated her airs, but took malicious comfort in knowing that Harvey had been slipping around with the choir director for at least fifteen years. Rumor had it that her sister-in-law, tired of her high-and-mightiness, snuck into her house one day while the cake was in the oven and slammed the door so it would fall. That, they said with a knowing look, was the year Dora broke a toe before the church homecoming.

Adversity is a dynamic portal for new ideas, especially when it comes to recipes, and if it were a big occasion, the range of variations in a single dish was astounding. Staples such as fried chicken, baked beans and potato salad always proliferated, and those cooks who specialized in these dishes had their adherents and detractors, usually in equal numbers. You had those who preferred double-dipped or battered fried chicken and those who liked a much lighter crust. The dividing line with baked beans involved the use of brown sugar or molasses and with potato salad, creamed or chunky.

I attended these gatherings with my grandmother Monette, who was not a cook herself (history and genealogy were her interests: according to her I was related to everyone between New Albany and Grenada). Monette stayed out of the fray, but she was a discriminating eater who from past experience knew the tables well.  “Be sure and get one of Alice Edmond’s fried pies,” she’d say, or, “Jane Early has that 8-layer caramel cake recipe from her mother Eugenia, a Hardin, my first cousin Dudley’s second cousin on his mother’s side, before she married Jane’s father, who gambled away the family farm in a lop-sided mule race. He had a glass eye that he used to take out and put in his iced tea when their preacher came over.”

Nowadays, store-bought collapsible tables have replaced the long lines of sagging and splintered pine boards beneath the blackjack oaks and sweet gums, but anyone who brings Stouffer’s to a church social in Mississippi is going to get talked about. And not in a good way.

A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965
A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965