Down South Dinner On The Grounds
By Tom Poland
My back road travels take me by many a rural church. And what do I see? A fellowship hall. Often its architecture is out of step with the church itself but it’s not out of step with the times. To have a fellowship or social hall is a trendy thing. Well, it wasn’t always this way.
I remember homecomings long ago at my family church, New Hope. People filled the sanctuary, old Dr. Cutts preached a tad too long, and ladies’ funeral home fans shooed away wasps. Yes, wasps. After all the soul saving ended, folks visited in the sanctuary. Homecoming was a kind of reunion and while the old folks caught up, I skedaddled outside where the main event would take place: dinner on the grounds.
Back then, we stood and ate at two long “tables” made from concrete blocks topped by stone slabs. Shaded by several large cedars (cut and gone), those primitive tables served their purpose just fine. Church ladies draped white tablecloths across them, and upon those tablecloths sat a Southern cookbook of foods. We dined like kings, queens, princes, and princesses.
For certain, I look back on dinner on the grounds with more fondness that I do social gatherings in the fellowship hall. Yes, flies flitted about those old tables and it was hot, but it should have been hot, a reminder of where we’d end up if we didn’t toe the line, and that would be with the “Debil.”
Many times I’ve wished those old tables and cedars still stood. Such things were lost to progress I assumed and then this July I spotted Little Stevens Creek Baptist Church down a long driveway off Highway 430 in Edgefield County. Storm clouds filled the sky and a dark line of woods provided a backdrop to the church. Its bright white architecture pulled me down that long entrance where a wonderful surprise waited.
Behind the church stood two stone and cement tables like I remembered from New Hope. A flood of memories came at once. Yellow-and-white dishes mounded over with potato salad, blue-and-white Corning Ware filled with casseroles, platters of fried chicken, string beans, sliced tomatoes, rolls, cornbread, squash, and loaves of what Granddad Poland called “white bread.” All manner of cakes and pies and jar after jar of iced tea. Folks heaped food onto plates known as Melmac. Try as I might I just cannot recall Styrofoam cups and plates back in the days of “cement” tables, nor do I remember milk jugs of tea. I recall china plates, stainless steel flatware, Tupperware, and possibly some paper plates. We didn’t have such an artificial world back then. Dinner on the grounds was a tradition, and the word that describes dinner on the grounds for me? “Genuine.”
I remember the food more so than the people but I can see Mom there in her stylish dark hair and 1960’s glasses showing me where her food was. (I was a tad reluctant to eat to other folk’s cooking but I got over that foolishness with time.)
Dinner on the grounds made memories for a lot of us. Said Lincolnton native Sheila Poss Callahan, “I loved those outdoor tables. When I was a little girl, Daddy and Granddaddy would lift me up onto the tables at Midway Church and let me run the entire length and jump into their arms. It was like flying!”
Reesie Poss remembers “as a child those tables at Martins Crossroads seemed to be 1,000 feet long. They were endless, and full of all the best food on Homecoming Sunday. Such fond memories.”
Daryl Bentley recalls the tea. “There’s nothing like the flavor of church picnic sweet tea. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s because so many different versions were stirred together.”
And I remember old community tables beneath vanquished cedars. We dined beneath sunlight, not fluorescent light. Ants appreciated the crumbs that fell from Heaven. There were flies but there were breezes too. Ice chests dispensed ice, not modern refrigerators, and the ice seemed colder, the tea sweeter.
Dinner on the grounds stood tall in a place called Memory. The new fellowship halls with their wheelchair ramps and air conditioning are good for the aged and infirmed. No doubting that, but wedding receptions, funeral meals, and homecoming dinners blur into indistinguishable events, for me at least. The surroundings just seem too much like restaurants. I doubt kids today will grow up with memories of fellowship halls but I bet they’d remember eating outside off long stone slabs as a business of flies pestered them. Gnats, too.
Those of us who ate on rock slabs fanning flies away may sound like primitives today but we’re blessed with memories, and there’s no doubting that either.
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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”