Good Eating at Church Suppers
Serving healthy portions of tradition and fellowship
With Christ Church Owensville’s annual homecoming dinner coming right up, parishioners gather to clean the kitchen and wash the dishes for the feast. We eat a potluck dinner because that’s what church people do before we work together. Then, as the dishes come down from the cabinets to be washed, I fall into a reverie. The plates are sturdy diner-style, green-striped, white crockery that, for the most part, match, so they nestle in neat stacks. The small oval plates for oysters are the same pattern. So are the cups and saucers, which remind me of how good the coffee is at church suppers.
The rest of the dishes are another matter. They are, I imagine, donated from the odds and ends, collections and estates of long-ago households. Occasionally, one of us says I think that was my grandmother’s; she had dishes like that. I dry the 1930s china bowl with its delicate roses, the art-deco honeydew-colored jadite fruit dish from the 1940s, a piece of melamine from the 1950s, a serving platter with a green, yellow and brown leaf-and-owl pattern, shades of the 1960s. These hardworking serving pieces connect me back across the decades to the people who also washed and dried them and who extended the hospitality of a church supper to the larger community.
Tradition goes into putting on a good church supper. Aged hams are scrubbed, baked and carved as thinly as possible by many of the same men and women who have done that job for years. The applesauce has been prepared weeks in advance by the folks who have made the applesauce for years, the tradition passed on to them by their mothers, aunts and other parishioners. With any luck, they are joined by some younger women and can pass on the skills and the joy of working together to them.
For most of the 20th century, church dinners and suppers were not only a common way to raise funds but also important events in the social lives of communities.
In the August 24, 1945, edition of the Evening Capital’s Social and Personal pages, the Christ Church Supper menu was reported to be chicken, crab cakes, potato salad and sliced tomatoes, with the proceeds going to the rectory fund. The paper reported a long list of guests who attended and noted that “ices” had been served. The dinners, workers and guests continued to appear in the society columns of the Evening Capital well into the 1960s.
An 1898 church dinner held by the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Ninth Street Christian Church in Washington, D.C., was reported in The Washington Post. The notice gives the menu and some of the ladies’ names, ending on a slightly desperate note: “The proceeds will be used to help pay a note on the new church, due this month.”
Menus at church dinners often highlight regional dishes. In Southern Maryland, lots of crab cakes, oysters, country ham and chicken are served.
Or they feature dishes reflecting the immigrant background of the parish. This is especially so in Baltimore, the city of neighborhoods. Little Italy’s St. Leo’s still holds some of the largest church suppers in the area, serving homemade meatballs, spaghetti and some 12,000 ravioli at each event. Though diminishing, Baltimore’s churches of German and Eastern European heritage offer sour beef and dumpling dinners. A 1911 article in The Washington Post about St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, “of which the Rev. V.F. Schmitt is pastor,” advertised a menu of pigs knuckles, sauerkraut, wiener schnitzel, pumpernickel and pretzels.
Even academics take an interest in church suppers. The Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University supports a webpage devoted to listing upcoming church suppers in the Northern Plains states. The offerings range from homemade sausage, lutefisk and meatballs to buffalo roast. Lutefisk is a traditional Nordic dish of dried or salted whitefish treated with lye. It is gelatinous and quite pungent, an acquired taste perhaps.
But even a church supper can’t please everybody. Ripped from the headlines of the May 14, 1928, Washington Post, dateline Omaha, Nebraska: Pastor Quits Church; ‘Too Many Dinners’. The Rev. R. Allen Grupe left the Plymouth Congregational Church to head the First Baptist Church in town because the Women’s Association was in the soup/dinner business. “They should take down the church signs and replace them with ‘café’,” he said. The women reported that his views on baptism were the true issue, but he denied it.
The morning of the Christ Church supper, the oysters are patted or padded, a linguistic distinction that is often discussed during the patting/padding, which is simply dipping them in egg-wash and coating them with cracker meal. Sweet corn, frozen some weeks before, is combined with lima beans and butter for the succotash. Serving bowls are filled, tea and coffee made. The first guests arrive. We fall into the rhythm of cooking, serving and washing up, with the simple grace of a community engaged in a common purpose.