Aunt Katy remembers from decades ago
the joys of communal dining.
For some reason my mind has turned to church suppers. Perhaps because there was the warm glow of fellowship at such a gathering that is impossible to forget. Or perhaps it is the mouth-watering, eye-appealing spread of food that embeded itself permanently in a young memeory.
It seems like those suppers were held most often in the fall. We'd arrive at the church in the gathering dusk of a chill evening with the acrid smoke of burning leaves hanging in the air. The sanctuary where we left our coats in the family pew, looked strange in the dim light. At the door of the Sunday School cum Dining Room we joined the line of folks waiting to buy tickets and be seated.
Semi-squashed between Pa's serge suit and Ma's second-best bombazine, I stood letting the sights and sounds wash over me. Conversation, loud, genial and laced with laughter over-lay the clank of tableware and china on the trestle tables and the scrape of folding chairs as people "squoze in". Shyly I'd peek around to see who I knew, mostly everyone, and where Miss Mae, the church organist and my beloved piano teacher, was seated.
Chicken was often the main dish at a church supper, roast chicken, fried chicken or chicken pie. Oh, those chicken pies! Aromatic wisps of steam escaping from cracks in the fluffy, golden biscuit crusts, rich, creamy gravy bubbling around delicious chunks of chicken so tender the meat fell away from the bones.
Lace-trimmed, starched white aprons covered the dresses of the ladies who were busy loading the tables with food. Covered tureens held mountains of potatoes mashed and whipped to perfection and pooled with melting butter. There were bowls of golden squash and Harvard beets, extra gravy in long china boats with curved-handled ladles and baskets of napkin-wrapped hot biscuits just in case there weren't enough on the pies to satisfy hearty appetites.
The sort of musical chairs game came to an end as families found their places. A sharp tinkle of spoon on water glass commanded silence for the preacher's mercifully short but fervent blessing. Strong-armed men then advanced on the tables with pitchers of hot coffee or cold milk while blushing young ladies lifted your cup for the requested beverage.
Crisp celery in tall glass vases, bowls of spicy pickles and sweet jellys were passed from hand to hand. There was hardly time to move fork from plate to mouth, the dishes of delicious foods appeared so steadily.
"My lands, John. Folks'll think you haven't eaten for a week. Look at your plate."
"Don't get chicken pie like this 't home, Em."
"I made that pie!"
"Well I don't get it often enough, then."
This exchange was followed by a burst of laughter from John's and Em's neighbors.
Children ate, shoveling in large servings of potato, gravy and meat with just a dash of vegetable in case someone thought to ask. Women tasted, judging gravy, biscuits, jellies, pickles by some secret standard of their own, guessing who made each. Men just tucked in and ate hearty. They'd worked hard all day and spent their good money on the tickets so meant to get full value for it.
I heard comments like: "Pshaw, Elsie, little mashed potato and gravy won't hurt the baby." "No, Jimmy, five pickles is enough. You want to have the bellyache and keep me up all night? Put that back or no dessert for you." "Say, Bert, you take apple and I'll take punkin then we'll cut them in two and have half of each." "Half of each, my foot. I'm gonna eat a whole of each and a piece of blueberry besides." "Watch out for that sharp cheese - take the skin right off the roof of your mouth!"
"....and then you beat the eggs separate and fold them in....." ".....always use just a speck of nutmeg 'long with the cinnamon and ginger...." "Matthew, come out from under that table this instant! The very idea..."
"Oh, dear, can't you wait till we get home? Well, get our coats then, and I'll take the small lamp from the kitchen......" a mother and child on their way to the outhouse. There was no inside lavatory in that old church.
Suddenly amid the din came a lull. Everyone stopped talking at once as tho in answer to a signal. For a surprised second silence hung suspended over the crowd only to burst in a ripple of laughter. A warm comfortable feeling of belonging enveloped the room.
Dessert, not than anyone needed it, would be pies and cakes baked by the women. "Goodness, no, I don't need a clean plate. Just put the cake right here. Little gravy won't hurt a mite." "That Miz Ames chocolate cake? Well, you just set it down right here and I'll take care of it." (Much laughter.)
"Certainly I'm going to have a piece of that walnut cake, too. Don't get to a supper like this every night and I guess we've got plenty of sody if I need it." (Quietly to anxious wife.) "My land!! I don't believe I'll need to eat for a week. I don't know when anything's tasted so good." (The largest lady there.)
Perhaps the most fun were pancake suppers put on by the menfolks. There was a group of several businessmen who went fishing together, two of whom fancied themselves pancake experts. They put on a delicious supper and entertained the diners at the same time.
Pancake suppers were simpler, just stacks of golden brown cakes, pitchers of maple syrup, platters of sausage (homemade, of course), strong coffee and pies. The cooks of the evening, one rotund, pink-cheeked, and Puckish, the other slender, sly , and droll, carried on an audible running battle as to which baked the best pancakes while turning them out by the dozen. Doors and serving slides between kitchen and dining room were left open so everyone could hear and enjoy the bantering.
Their humor flowed through the waiters who joked with each other and their customers till the whole hall rang with laughter. One man always laughingly demanded to know who had baked his cakes and refused to eat them, insisting on their being exchanged for those made by the other cook. The waiters would turn their backs, pretend to change the plates, and, in full view of other diners, give him back the same ones. "Ah, now THOSE are real pancakes!" he'd chortle and happily settle down to eat probably knowing all the time what had gone on.
The church was cold when we hurried to get our wraps. It was colder still outside as we traveled home under star-studded skies. I undressed beside the kitchen range and scurried off to bed. The blanket sheets were chilly and I would either huddle very still, hoping to fall asleep before frostbite set in or thrash my legs frantically in an effort to warm them and the sheets.
Down stairs the clock ticked steadily, chiming out the quarter hours. Pa rattled the grates and shifted the damper on the range and Ma's big spoon clattered in the familiar blue bowl as she set tomorrow's bread. I might hear the small nightly scuffle between Pa and the cat who objected to being shut in the cellar, but again, I might not. It had been a long day, a big, delicious supper, and an unusually exciting evening. I was tired and if I only said "bless all the family", I guessed HE'd know without my naming everyone that night.