Monday, January 28, 2013

A Food Memory: Church Potlucks

Sometime in December, before Christmas, the First Presbyterian Church of Shadyside had a potluck supper. 

Shadyside, having a population of approximately 3500 souls, had about nine churches of varying sizes.  Assuming some souls worshiped no god, others worshipped Him outside of city limits, roughly 1/3 were Catholic, and another 1/3 were too busy, tired or uninterested to attend any sort of potluck at all, that meant that about 50-80 people (including children) would come back to church on a freezing Sunday night, after having already come for services on a freezing Sunday morning, with casserole dishes in hot-pad covered hands, to eat together.

This was a positively magical night for me.  I’ve had a lot of fancier meals since, at homes and restaurants - but to this day there is little that delights my stomach more than the glimpse of a wide buffet.  I’ll take one bite of a hundred things over a big bowl of any one thing, no matter how good it is (this predilection, no doubt, mixed with a more refined palette, explains why I also adore a tasting menu).   What was even more delightful were all of the church ladies bustling around the tiny kitchen in their calico dresses and gray-white buns, trying ever so hard to coordinate food into an appropriate buffet flow with a few dozen children underfoot, and a few dozen men who clearly needed to be told what to do, lest they stand there drinking percolated coffee mumbling about their yards.  Among the ladies: both of my grandmothers (granny and grandma), my mom, and my aunts; among the men: both of my grandfathers (pap pap and grandpa), my dad, and an uncle.  Among the children: my brother and I.  Often in attendance: yet another aunt and uncle and their kids.  We filled a table.

Despite my current musings about religion and science, I have no personal anxiety about or dislike of religion like some people who may have been raised with guilt or anger, which I owe to all of these people for being respectful and reserved, and not bashing anyone over the head with fears of hell or guilt, or lambasting science.  Also for an artistic person I have a remarkably loving and functional family who support me completely.   I remember with total nostalgic contentment how much I loved having everyone at one table, eating.  A few grandparents and an uncle were particularly adept at telling jokes, too, most of which have passed on and who I miss greatly.

I did weird child things like make a fort out of the coats, try to hide in the kitchen cupboards, and play hide-and-seek in the empty, dark church classrooms with the other kids.  We made paper ornaments to hang on the tree in the hall to the tune of our garbled carols after the eating.  But, like anything else, much of this was really about the eating.      

The food now sounds so dated, such a remnant of mid-century’s celebration of technological convenience mixed with a depression-survivor mentality – cans, gelatin, bleached flour, crocks of stuff suspended in tinned cream of something, topped with factory-crisped onions.  Ham with pineapple.  Parmesan crusted chicken breasts, as tan and dry as a desert.   Pot roast a’ sea in beef broth.  Creamed corn, creamed spinach, creamed green beans (I’m sure no one considered a vegetable not baked in cream).  Billowy, buttery mashed potatoes.  Pure, sweet white parker house rolls.  But lord, to a child, such a bastion of fat and youth-palatable flavors seemed to never end - until it did, at a table that inevitably held one fruit-filled Jell-O with whipped cream topping, one pie filled with fruit in a viscous jelly, and a gigantic soft white sheet cake under an icing of as much sugar as the requisite amount of butter could hold without disintegrating under its own crystalline weight.

This was a time where we were encouraged to eat as much of this bounty as it took to stuff us to our ears (we didn’t worry about health or weight, and no one doubt any child would run it off climbing tress or playing sports in the street), then sit around sipping coffee for an hour or so, digesting.  No one had a phone or a computer or anywhere else to be, so people talked – mostly about people, their yards, local sports, what the kids were doing, what the people who had left town were doing.  People were already leaving town, but it wasn’t yet as prevalent as it would get in later years.  This was after the birth of the 24-hour news cycle, but where you could still get away from it – and perhaps more importantly, where you could still want to get away from it and not be accused of being a luddite. If you all wanted to know who was in a movie or what the periodic symbol for Argon was, you had to think about it

The most wonderful thing was that people wanted to come, and didn’t have to take great pains to clear their schedule to do so.  Odds are that I just remember it differently because I was just a child and my schedule was governed by my parents.  But since I was around ten, everything got so much smaller.  Many people have died, plenty more have left town or the church, and the few who remained got Busy.  My family got smaller.  I left town.  I don’t even know if they do it anymore.  I cannot imagine that, should I be so inclined to recreate them, many of the recipes would taste good to me today, but do not doubt for a second how delicious my memory of the food-mosaic of a plate remains.