Helen Chappell - April 2009

Church and Fire Hall Suppers
What You Might Be Missing

by

Helen Chappell

   For many how have come here from the suburbs or cities, community suppers are an unknown. They see the handmade signs posted in the post office or the supermarket and just keep walking, oblivious to one of the great rural traditions, and one of the Eastern Shore’s best kept secrets.
    Nearly every church and ever fire hall on the Shore regularly holds some kind of open community event that involves serving home-cooked food to large numbers of people. From Bellevue’s St. Luke Church’s Methodist Men barbecue on Rt. 33, where delicious halves of barbecued chicken and ribs are served up together with home baked desserts to the Wild Game Dinner at the Hooper’s Island Fire Department to Trappe United Methodists Saturday breakfasts, there is enough culinary tradition and good food to satisfy even the pickiest eater. These meals are held for a good cause, too. Money raised is used to support the hosting organization, which in turn serves the local community. You can walk into a fire hall or a church center and sit down at family-style tables (why do you think everyone calls those folding aluminum things fire hall tables?), where you’ll be served by volunteers, while others work in steamy kitchens. Or you can take your meal out to eat on your boat or at home. It’s all good.
And 99% of the time, the food is very good. These folks know how to cook in the traditional Eastern Shore way. So be prepared to break your diet. These are not meals for food snobs. Sometimes things are fried, boiled with diced fatback or rolled in breadcrumbs. But if it’s flavor you’re looking for, these events are often the place to find it.
    I’ve been going to these things all my life, and yes, I have hit a few clunkers where the roast beef was overcooked and stringy, and the mashed potatoes came out of a box. More than once I’ve chewed on gristly mystery meat and been served a side of limp white bread. But a few bad experiences shouldn’t stop you from trying. In time, you’ll find places that never let you down, and avoid places where the food is just plain awful every single time. Some people want to cut corners, and frankly, some people are just very bad cooks. You have to be prepared to expect nothing, so when you get something really outstanding, like the perfect oyster fritter, you’ll be thrilled and delighted.
    In my experience, the oyster fritters served by the Tilghman VFC are some of the best on the Shore, better than many restaurants and much more reasonably priced. I have rarely been to a ham and oyster dinner anywhere in the Mid-Shore that wasn’t at least passable, and often just plain delicious. At least once in your life, you have to go to a wild game supper down in Dorchester County, and the West Side VFD of Nanticoke often finds its crab feasts sold out by one, with people still standing in line.
    Unless you’re a hopelessly upscale snob (and you know who you are), there’s something pretty neat about sitting down to an oilcloth covered table with a bunch of strangers being served cornbread, three bean salad and homemade fried chicken, a dish the Shore is famous for creating. While you’re eating good food and being poured another glass of iced tea, you meet all kinds of interesting people, from retirees living in Rehoboth Beach toe a young family from the next town over. Everyone has a story, and I like to hear it. Eating family style at a church is a great place to gather material.
    I also like community suppers because they remind me of my childhood, when people seemed much more civil than they are now, and ladies and gentlemen did not discuss religion and politics with strangers. It’s a nice feeling, even for a little while, to feel as if you are a part of a community, even a community of strangers. Even the nastiest person can’t be unhappy when there’s good food being served at a reasonable price, for a good cause, and there’s a table full of homemade layer cakes and cookies for dessert. Only the blackest and most attenuated of hearts cannot be warmed by food and happy, eating people surrounding them.
    Community suppers always remind me of Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America, his great study of post-Revolutionary life in the United States. De Tocqueville noted that the classes were rarely separated in public places, and the richest ate at the same table as the poorest in most American establishments. Two hundred years ago, such community feeds were a part of everyday life. Towns and cities celebrated events such as Washington’s birthday with public feasting, and travelers were accustomed to eating their meals family style at inns and taverns along their route. Such eating had been commonplace for centuries, until the automobile changed the American culture to the point where we all shuttle to our destinations, isolated from one another inside our steel and glass carriages. The advent of the drive-up window insures that even in the common denominator of fast food joints, we have the option of separating ourselves from others.
    Maybe the church and fire hall suppers are a dying way of life, but I can’t see them going without a struggle. The people who plan and put on these events are righteously proud of what they do. With the slow and steady brain drain on the Shore, where kids leave every year for greener pastures and better paying jobs, maybe the population of women and men willing and able to do this is dying out. I’d hate to see that happen. It would kill one of the great rural traditions. And that would be hard to replace, even with the bounty of upscale restaurants we have in this region. As delicious as they are, they’re just not the same thing.
    But I will say this – in February it was endless gray, cloudy and cold, and it seemed as if winter was going to grind me down to a fine powder. I went to a friend’s Methodist Women soup sale in Bozman. One of the best of the best church/fire hall food events ever!
    Is there anything more comforting than soup on a cold miserable day, after a long string of cold, miserable days, with no end in sight?
   “Soup of the morning/Beautiful soup.” Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. And he was so right that soup is beautiful. It’s the ultimate comfort food. It’s what Mom gave you when you were sick, and what she served you for lunch on cold afternoons. Soup, that wonderful blend of flavors, textures and tastes may not always be fashionable or gourmet, but it is eternally, beautifully satisfying. I was surrounded by happy, smiling Methodist Women, and happy smiling customers picking out their soup. In spite of the mid-winter blues, there was such joy in that room, it would have been impossible to feel grumpy or even very cynical. Community and food can restore your faith.
    One very elegantly dressed young woman passed me on her way out the door bearing her soup. The smile on her lovely young face was so joyful and full of anticipation. She was going home to eat soup. She had something to look forward to, and she was clearly thrilled about it. Community food can bring you that kind of happiness. And you can take it home with you and cherish it with every mouthful.
    I walked in that Saturday morning and was greeted by pots and crocks and pans of soup of all makes and kinds. Even the most hardened soup hater would find something to please the most jaded palate there. Just the smell of all those varieties of wonderful soup was heavenly, like a hug.
    Actually choosing from all that soup was harder that I anticipated. There was clearly not a dud soup in the lot and there was so much to choose from. While I was deciding which soup I wanted, I sat down to allow others who knew their choices to be served by the soup ladies.
    Sunlight was streaming through a stained glass window, right on my face. I just sat there, basking in the light. It felt so good, that intense sunlight in the middle of such a gray and cheerless winter. That it came streaming in through a stained glass window made the moment all the more special, like a tiny blessing.
    I wish there was a place in my house where I got a big pool of sunlight every afternoon. I’d spread out a blanket and lie in the middle of the sunbeam, eating my soup and reading. It was only reluctantly that I finally got up and bought my four soup choices. I wasn’t sure when I’d see a sunbeam like that again. Not for a couple of months, anyway.
    They also served homemade biscuits and brownies. I inhaled the chicken and dumplings when I got home, and they were just like I remembered, back in the days when people actually made dumplings. The next night, I savored the split pea, and the night after that, Kiowa Southwestern soup. The chili went in the freezer, a treat for another day, and it made it for about a week I devoured that too.
    If they called it The First Church of Soup, I would go every Sunday, heathen that I am. I can’t wait for another soup sale.
    I can’t wait to see people coming our with their bags and boxes of soup, everyone looking happy. All the Methodist Women will be there, and they’re happy and smiling, too. You could build a whole ministry around soup. Which, I guess, the ladies have.
    I bet if Jesus came in there, he’d be thrilled with the soup, and the community dinners and say that this is what it is supposed to be like, not fighting with each other all the time. If you read the Bible, you’ll note Christ was big on community dinners, and He could whip a little something up for five hundred out of a couple of loaves of bread and some fish.
    I hear there’s a church in Denton having an all-you-can-eat chicken and fixin’s night next week. Maybe I’ll look into it.