By Daniel Schantz
Hunger is a great teacher.
It was at the potluck dinner that I learned just how hard it is to master the virtues of patience, self-control, and acceptance.
Church dinners always started late, and the bowl of corn flakes I had at sunrise would not sustain me till noon. During the morning sermon, the fragrance of coffee and hot rolls would drift up from the church basement, and my stomach would begin to ache. I clutched my stomach and prayed, O Lord, my kingdom for one thin soda cracker.
We sang all nine verses of the invitation hymn, then made our way to the basement. When I opened the basement door I was overwhelmed by a wonderland of aromas: chicken and ham, beef and cheese, tomato sauce and hot bread. My hands began to shake and I staggered, about to pass out from hunger.
To cope with my cravings, I appointed myself “chief taster.” I would casually stroll by the food tables and palm a potato chip, or pinch a couple of olives, or thumb a chunk of cheese, with the skill of a character from a Charles Dickens novel. If that wasn’t enough, I would wander into the kitchen and volunteer to help. “Here, let me carry this platter of turkey to the table.” Along the way I would extract a small “service fee” from the platter and gobble it up. I knew this was wrong, but I figured it was less of a crime than, say, murder or cannibalism.
At last the preacher waved his arms to get our attention. “Let’s ask the Lord’s blessing on this bounty,” he said, and he began a protracted prayer that reviewed his morning sermon, reminded us of upcoming events, and thanked everyone who had anything to do with this meal, from the farmers and cooks, to the janitor who set up the tables.
“Amen!” I shouted, and leaped for the food line, but the preacher was not done.
“Remember, our policy is for mothers with small children to go first.”
My heart stopped.
I hunched down and waddled into the line, but my mother grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me back. “Patience is bitter,” she said, “but its fruit is sweet.”
“I don’t want patience,” I argued, “I want pie.”
I have never heard a sermon on gluttony, even though it’s one of the celebrated seven deadly sins. I suspect that preachers find this subject too close for comfort, and I’m sympathetic.
A church meal in the 1950s was a feast fit for King Henry VIII. Not only was the food home-cooked, it was also home-grown. The same meal today would cost you $50 a plate, if you could even find it.
The salad table was a teaser of gleaming gelatin, plus green salads sprinkled with walnuts and olives and drenched in homemade dressings.
The rolls were so big, just two of them would fill my plate, so I learned to stuff them into my pockets, to save room on my plate for better things.
Next came the casseroles, like Kentucky wonder beans, baked in onions and ham, or scalloped potatoes, buried under a half-inch of cheddar.
Then I entered the promised land: a mountain range of chicken, fried in lard and love, and surrounded by other meats, like salty ham and roast beef so tender it crumbled at the touch of a fork.
Last came a minefield of pies. I always took the cherry pie, with sour sweetness bubbling out of its lattice-topped crust, and I topped it with a scoop of hand-churned ice cream.
At the end of the row stood two enormous stone crocks, filled with real lemonade and sweetened tea, kept cold by a floating block of ice as big as a lunchbox.
Whenever I got in line, it suddenly hit me that I can’t eat all of this. I have to make some choices. But I don’t want to make choices, I want it all. Sigh. OK, should I have the creamed corn or the corn on the cob? Do I take the crispy chicken or the chicken with gravy?
I had about 10 seconds to decide, because hungry people were shoving me along. To this day I make my decisions quickly.
As I shuffled through the line, my mother coached me about good manners:
“Don’t start eating until you are all the way through the line.”
“Don’t go back again, until everyone has been through the line once.”
“Stop before you are stuffed, or you will be sick all day.”
“Don’t take the last piece of pie, that’s piggish.”
All good wisdom, but I saw no reason to leave the last piece of pie for some other pig. Somebody had to eat it, why not I?
Even the perfect church banquet had its letdowns, and I learned to accept them.
Before the meal started I had already picked out my favorites. Let’s see, I want that big drumstick on top, and some of those noodles, and some strawberries on ice cream.
Alas, by the time I got through the line, those prizes were gone, and I had to settle for the meat loaf and a dry brownie. It was my first encounter with the vanity of life.
One time I selfishly took the largest piece of chocolate cake and then took a seat across from a lady who had not gone through the line yet. I bit into the cake and choked. “Yuck, this is the worst cake I have ever eaten.”
The lady stiffened. “Well,” she said, “It wasn’t my best recipe, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”
I wanted to crawl under the table, and for the first time I realized that people’s feelings are more important than my pleasure.
At an outdoor church picnic, I had my eye on a raisin pie, but behind the church yard was a smelly barn and feedlot. When I reached for the raisin pie, the raisins flew away!
Church dinners were not called “potluck” for nothing. Some cooks were terrible, and somewhat less than “clean.” My mother said, “If it looks funny and it smells funny, don’t eat it.”
That’s one time I listened to my mother.
If you were a mother, making a dish for the dinner, you knew you were up against some of the best cooks in the county. The ultimate humiliation was when the entire church spurned a dish you worked hard to prepare. Even I wouldn’t eat my own mother’s tuna casserole. But she just laughed as she tossed it into the trash, and I learned that one failure is not the end of the world.
Some dishes were snubbed because no one could figure out what they were. Hmmm, is this eggplant, or turnips, or potatoes? I think I’ll pass on this one.
The disappointments of church dinners reminded me of the words of Jesus: “Is not the life more than meat?”
What could possibly be more than fried chicken? It was to die for.
Now I know that there are many things more wonderful than fried chicken.
I just can’t remember what they are.
The romantic age of church dinners is mostly over. Working mothers don’t have time to cook. Casseroles and pies come from boxes. The chicken is carryout. Roast beef has given way to hamburgers burned to a crisp on the church parking lot. Fresh salads have been trumped by bags of chips as big as pillows. I’ve been to a couple church dinners where they actually ran out of food, something that never happened in the ’50s.
The wisdom of the potluck is still there. There’s just a lot less temptation to resist.
One thing I know for sure. I’m glad I was alive in 1955.
Dan Schantz is retired professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.