Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dinners on the Ground

I’m so glad I was born soon enough to experience a “dinner-on-the-ground.” Actually I feel sorry for all you late-comers who’ve never had that privilege. Our little church family hosted these delightful affairs about twice a year; of course, an afternoon of singing always followed. That’s still a puzzle to me. We could hardly grunt, let alone sing with our tummies so full of good food.

I guess saw-horses bore the planks that served as our tables – they had to be sturdy to stand up under all that weight! The ladies of the church flexed their best culinary muscles in the days before those Sundays. Chicken were chased and quickly dispatched to the better land so that they could be floured and fried to a crunchy but tender brown in the iron skillet. These chicken chefs didn’t measure, or fret about whether they’d added enough salt, or if the lard was hot enough. They just knew. The plump chicken parts were laid in the black pan’s crackling grease and proceeded to do their thing. In some families obnoxious kids snitched pieces of this delectable offering before the bird made it to the plank tables. They were willing, however, to pay the price for thievery.

If the hen was long in the tooth, she probably stewed for several hours in her own juice. Then the lady of the house would pull the meat off the bone, returning it to the pot of broth. By the way, the idea of skimming the fat off would have made this cook’s eyebrows fly off her head in surprise. Eliminate the fat?!!! That’s what made the dish rich and filling! Shaking her head at such foolishness, she proceeded to mix up the dumplings, rolling them thin before cutting the tender dough into rectangles. When the broth rolled to suit her, she’d drop them into the pot, one by one, patiently poking each one down, then adding another. When that mixture was uncovered on Sunday, people started drooling a mile back.

Another good lady might show off her expertise with chicken ‘n dressing. Everyone envied and revered the woman who could turn out this dish. The cornbread had to be prepared just so (no light bread/flour in southern dressing!!!), the spices and black peppery/saltiness combined skillfully to tingle the tongue, and just the proper amount of broth so that the finished product was neither sloppy nor dry. Baked until it crusted a little on the edges, with soft, golden good eating on the inside. Perfect with a river of tasty chicken gravy in the middle.

How can I describe the last course- the main course for many of us – the desserts!! Chocolate layer cakes with thick chocolate icing in the middle and piled high on top and sides; sweetly tart blackberries hiding underneath a flaky lattice crust. Chess pies, their transparent fillings golden and buttery, coconut cream with lightly browned meringue towering proudly on top, Karo nut pie so rich one piece could blast you into permanent diabetes.

Yes, I miss the dinners on the ground. Most of all, though, I miss that church family – they were the first persons I came to know outside my family unit. They still are a part of me in the sense that each one, through some trait, action, or word impacted my life for good. Ordinary country folk who loved, earned a living, tried to please the Lord, and encourage each other. They were far from perfect. They didn’t always speak or behave as they should, but their hearts, influenced by God, spilled over into that little body of saints, and I was one of the glad recipients. Thank you, Lord.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Way back in the dark ages Jim and I, along with two very small children, drove inland every weekend from Charleston, SC, to a tiny hamlet named for a state senator. Jim, a machinist’s mate on a submarine, aimed to be a minister, and longed to get some preaching experience in and around his final two years in the Navy. So, God arranged for us to meet the Barnwellites.

Forty or 50 generally showed up for Sunday morning worship in the small, red-brick building on Dunaway Boulevard. Friendly and hospitable, I believe we saw the inside of every home in that little church family during our time with them.

The Green family never failed to fill the second pew from the front on the right side: four beautiful daughters and their equally attractive mother, Gladys. She, Mary Francis, Anna Sue, Kay and Sharon carried the song service as their voices blended in graceful harmony. Song-leader husband and dad, Johnny, gazed proudly down at his little chorus as he directed.
Johnny hailed from Tennessee; Gladys was a dyed-in-the-wool native of South Carolina. You had to hear her accent to believe it – a typical greeting to a newcomer would sound like this: “Hello, Am’m Gla-a-dis Gree--en. So happy to meetchu-u-u!” I loved it, and her. Only about a third of their offspring still lived under their roof; two married sons and a daughter completed the family. Sitting at the kitchen table once, watching her stir a pot, I asked her if she had gathered lots of recipes over the years. She looked at me with disbelief and replied, “Honey, I just try to keep stomachs filled up, I don’t have time to try recipes!”
We loved visiting them in their miniscule three-bedroom home, filled with teen girls primping, carefully spraying their bouffant hairdos, giggling, talking on the phone to boys, and listening to mama’s admonitions about life. They lavished attention on Ginger, age two– she loved it, of course.

We dropped in unexpectedly on the Hammet family one Saturday afternoon. Homer, Dip and their two children welcomed us with delight and insisted we share their meal. Peas, rice and hoe cake -- what a feast!!
Dip had cooked since before she could remember. She learned to make biscuits (a necessity for every South Carolina cook) when she was five or six, standing on a cardboard box to reach the counter-top. With her mother’s apron tied around her a couple of times and drooping to her feet, she mixed and rolled and cut out every morning until she arrived at perfection (much to her daddy’s relief). Her mother left very early every day to clean houses; Dip’s dad had a problem with drinking and didn’t work often. However, working or not, he “had to have biscuits” for breakfast so his little girl stepped in.
Because Dip’s adult responsibilities began when she was so young, I wasn’t wildly surprised to learn that she married at age 12. Her military husband left immediately for England for three years’ duty. During that absence Dip matured to the ripe old age of 15 and began life as a married woman. I never heard her groan or complain about her experiences; she wasn’t bitter toward her dad or mom, and loved Homer and her children deeply. She especially loved her Savior and enjoyed the church family.

Another family seemed to have a revolving door policy: they welcomed anyone, anytime, for any reason. Young people constantly dropped in because they knew Claude and Shirley really liked, and even enjoyed them. Shirley could bake biscuits that would do any South Carolinian proud, even if she was a Georgia cracker!! She looked Hispanic with dark hair and skin, and remained reed slim though mother to five boys. Shirley’s parenting was mostly carefree: she didn’t worry overmuch about waxy ears or little boys making themselves dirty. Hugs and kisses abounded, however, and she had been known to weep with a pre-teen son over a broken romance.
Claude was a metallurgist at the Savannah River Plant. His expression of sternness belied his dry wit and humor, which he used on everyone. Some men carry with them an air of calm authority, and Claude was one of them. Despite the outward appearance, though, he was a bucket of panicky goo if one of his boys met with an accident or was in pain for any reason.
Several of the church’s teen girls vowed quite openly in Shirley’s presence that if she died, they were going to marry Claude. How they planned to narrow the group down to one was never discussed.

Then there was Jean and J. C. Satterfield. This couple adopted at least eight children over the years. As with most parents, they struggled mightily with each one. Either they were waking every few minutes night after night to feed twin preemies, or caring for a severely handicapped toddler, or winning the trust of an abused child, or wrestling with teens, just to mention a few situations. Jean was a former Mormon from Utah - blustery, strong-minded, plain-spoken, yet with a golden heart lurking underneath those protective layers. She missed her home and family very much; she never quite acclimated herself to the obscure little town. Too, the church her husband cast his lot with certainly differed from the latter-day saints! Though Jean was baptized into this group, she remained aloof in many respects and provoked members over the years by questioning set-in-stone tenets. I believe the greatest source of her unrest resulted from prevailing pronouncements about divorce and remarriage. A youthful Jean had divorced her first husband, and eventually married J. C. I felt she was never at peace in the Lord because of those early mistakes. I so wish I had another chance to encourage her! How insensitively we treat the wounded ones at times.

Jim and I left that area in 1967 when he was completed his time with Uncle Sam. We’ve returned infrequently since then, and both rejoiced and grieved at various changes in the little church family. I wish we had emphasized love and compassion much, much more, and strongly championed the love of Jesus instead of some other issues. But we were very young, and fairly new in the faith … so there you are.

I thank God that he blessed us through the sisters and brothers in Barnwell. I still love them dearly.