Dinners on the grounds were once held on rickety tables between the church and cemetery, when 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.