By Anita Garner
The tall lady on the left is the pastor’s wife, my mother,
Sister Fern Jones.
When we’re ready to gather again, a potluck is worth gathering for. Potluck meals are the best reason for church basements, community centers and multi-purpose rooms everywhere to exist. Any space that’ll hold rows and rows of folding tables covered with makeshift tablecloths is instantly inviting. And over there, along that wall, more rows of tables laden with the best food in the world brought by home cooks.
Growing up in the Deep South, bouncing back and forth on tour with our gospel singing family then settling down briefly while Daddy pastored a church, potlucks were the highlights of every stop for my brother and me. Daddy was a great natural cook. Mother, who didn’t bother with preparing day to day food, was a superb baker during her middle of the night creative sessions but both our parents were as excited as Leslie Ray and I were to meet local cooks.
Churchpeople brought their specialties. Washtubs were filled with sweet tea or lemonade. Tables like the one in the photo above featured all kinds of desserts. Kids swarmed while cooks soaked up praise for their best recipes.
In New England, where every picturesque town seems to have one or more equally picturesque churches, I heard about bean nights. Though they started in the basements and social halls connected to churches, they weren’t intended only for church-goers. They were also important fund raisers. Anyone could buy a ticket and eat their fill (two sittings per night) of beans and franks, salads and breads and, of course, desserts.
That picture looks like many church basements I’ve visited since leaving my parents’ traveling ministry. The churches Daddy was in charge of were either small or in the process of being built. Growing a congregation was his specialty so we didn’t always have social spaces inside. Our potlucks became “Dinner On The Grounds,” providing opportunities for kids to run around from table to table asking for samples. Ambrosia for me. Fried chicken and deviled eggs for Leslie Ray..
Potlucks were already perfect the way they were decades ago and they don’t need much changing, though many churches I’ve attended now have big sparkly kitchens. I’m still a fan of crepe paper streamers if you’ve got them and if you can get able bodied volunteers to drape them. An old piano in the corner where anybody can play, and there’s always someone who can.
The best part then and now is joining the people around the buffet lines carrying our plates to our tables and stopping to ask, “Who made this?” then seeking out the cook to get the recipe. There’s a good chance you’ll see multiples of that casserole at the next gathering and every casserole dish will be carried home empty by a satisfied cook.
I can’t wait for the next time we’ll be standing around talking about how good these beans are.