Dinner on the Ground

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My family was part of a country church when I was very young. We met in a little white building with wooden theater seats that creaked when people moved, especially us little ones.

Once a year we had a “dinner on the ground.” Most people today would call it a covered dish or a potluck, but, on that country road, it was dinner on the ground.

Beside the church was a cemetery where my great-great-grandparents, and later several other members of my extended family, were buried. In the yard between them, men from the church set up wooden sawhorses to support makeshift tables. The churchwomen spread tablecloths on them and filled them with real, from scratch, home cooking.

Highsmith reunion library of congress
Dinner on the ground at a family reunion in Mayodan, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress.

We enjoy a similar experience at our church occasionally, although the dinner is in the fellowship hall and not on the ground. The tables are eight-foot folding ones and the tablecloths are paper; but, because we have so many women in their 70s and 80s, the food has changed little from what I tasted back at Sycamore Chapel.

I don’t remember ever actually making a covered dish to carry somewhere until Ray and I were 22- and 21-year-old newlyweds in Lexington, Kentucky. I had a lot to learn. I remember one particular failure in Lexington. I looked in a cookbook for an idea and found a recipe for something called Hopping John. I had never had it before, but this combination of rice and black-eyed peas looked like something I could do–and something we could afford on our little budget.  I can still seeing it lying there in the big, round Armetale dish given to me by the church ladies who hosted my bridal tea–pretty, yes, but an overdone, squishy, bland dish.

Little by little, I learned. Finally, in one of our churches, I got some practical advice on how much to take to a covered dish. A wise person–probably a woman–made sure that the person making announcements said that at the upcoming potluck meal every family should bring enough food to feed their entire family, plus a dish to share for visitors.

That has been my blueprint since then. First, I try to imagine the amount of food that will be eaten by each person coming with me to an event. Then, I cook that much food, plus more–and I never take Hopping John!

The most memorable potluck I have attended was in Urbana, Illinois. As usual, ladies arrived early and put their dishes on the table, in the refrigerator, or in the oven. When church was almost over, we began to smell something horrid coming from the kitchen. Finally, someone opened the oven and discovered the reason why.

The church building sat at the edge of town where the miles and miles of corn and soybeans began. An uninvited, four-legged visitor had wandered in from the fields and found refuge in the church oven. Along with the delicious dishes heating up in the oven was a well-done mouse!

Have you ever heard the term “generous cook?” That has become my goal as a hostess at my home. I want every person present around my table to feel completely welcome and to feel like he had all he wanted with more to spare; and, if I participate in a potluck, I want every person there to feel that way, too. Notice that I said person. The mice can find their own dinner on the ground.

The generous man will be prosperous,
And he who waters will himself be watered.
Proverbs 11:25 

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