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.

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