Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Ode to My Southern Baptist Food Roots

I was raised Southern Baptist. My dad was a deacon in the church and my mom was a Sunday school teacher. Our family spent every Sunday at our church, and I don't mean just showing up for morning service and then taking off for a leisurely afternoon of rest and relaxation. I mean, Sunday church was an all day event, beginning with an hour of Sunday school, then an hour or more of church service, after which we headed home for an early Sunday supper, which almost always involved some kind of casserole dish made with leftover ham along with sweet tea, kale cooked in fatback, and if we were really lucky, West Virginia pepperoni rolls topped with Oliverio peppers and mozzarella cheese, a family tradition harkening to our Fairmont, W.V. roots. Later that afternoon, we would return to the church for an hour of choir practice, another hour of youth group and finally evening service, which usually wrapped up well past 8 p.m. For active church members like ourselves, the seventh day of rest was hardly rest at all.

Later in the week there was Wednesday night church, which was prefaced by Wednesday night supper, an evening where the church ladies took over the kitchen, whipping up every comfort food imaginable. From fried chicken with white gravy and biscuits to meat sauce doused spaghetti, the hardworking ladies of our church created an array of decadent concoctions that culminated with a spread of homemade cakes and pies divine enough to make the angels weep.

You see, as true Southern Baptists, there isn't whole lot we're allowed to do. Booze is off limits as is smoking, fornicating, non-secular music, even dancing in some instances, but there's one action that is completely acceptable-- eating, and we do a heck of a lot of it, often in large, self-indulgent quantities.

From all-you-can eat ice cream socials where attendees are encouraged to taste their way around thirty or so hand-churned flavors (peach, strawberry, fudge) to the ubiquitous church potluck where ladies and gents offer up their "best of the best", often consisting of several different flavors of cheese balls, three-bean salads, deviled eggs, cream of mushroom soup-laden casseroles, bacon-laced BBQ beans, and no less than at least five variations of potato salad, with each version being touted as the only one worth eating, we Baptists will devour it all, happily oblivious to the number three deadliest sin: gluttony.

Speaking of sin, the dessert table at a church potluck is its own sugary evil. Think buttermilk pie, fried apple pie, bundt cakes made with 7-UP, coconut black walnut cake, cinnamon rolls dripping with powdered sugar icing, chocolate chunk cookies, peanut butter fudge, and of course, some gooey, jiggly goody that always involves gelatin. Jell-O salads spiked with pineapple bits, graham crackers, bananas, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, nuts, even rice, pimientos and crushed pretzels happily find their home somewhere along those long fold-out tables.

There's something so loving about offering up the rest of the world your very best even if cooking isn't your thing. Maybe it's just that one dish you know how to make, and maybe it's just a slap-together-crockpot of grape jelly meatballs made with frozen meatballs, grape jelly and jarred chili sauce. Maybe your go-to dish are those addictive sausage balls made with Bisquick (which are three ingredients of pure heaven, by the way).

There's no room for fancy when you're cooking with love.

Let's face it, church food is special. Made from the gentle, caring hands of many-a-church lady, these are recipes to be savored, cherished and hopefully passed along to future generations, no matter what one's chosen religion might be, because when it comes to food and fellowship, sometimes it's best to let the cooking do all the preaching.

Got a favorite food memory or recipe? I'd love to hear from you.

Church Ladies Circle Salad

This salad might seem an odd combination with its mixture of diced pimentos, cream cheese and pineapple, but trust me, it's an immaculate amalgamation of sweet, savory and crunchy. The church ladies love to serve this salad with side of Ritz crackers to enhance its salty sweet combo.

Serves 8

2 (3-ounce) boxes lemon gelatin
2 cups boiling water
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
3 to 4 tablespoons diced pimientos
1/2 cup lightly crushed pecans
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Dissolve your gelatin in boiling water. Let it stand a few minutes and then add cream cheese so it will partially melt into the gelatin. It's ok to leave a few cream cheese chunks in there. Add in your drained pineapple, pimiento, and pecans. Mix well and refrigerate just until it starts to set. Then, stir it again. Whip up your whipping cream and fold it into the gelatin mixture. Throw the whole thing into a baking dish and stick it back in the fridge until it sets up.  Cut into squares and serve chilled.

From, "White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining" (Ten Speed Press, 2006) Pin It Now!


  1. Your post took me back some years. My Grandma made the best fried apple pies! And no one in my family ever bothered to write down the recipe. I've tried others, but none have been the same. Thanks for stirring up some delicious memories.

  2. Funny how that gluttony is the sin of choice and seen as being less bad by many of the more fundamentalist Christian religions. I guess because it's the least apt to lead to the young ladies and gentlemen having sex? My grandmother used to make these amazing molded salads with jello, fruits, marshmallows, nuts and celery (?). There may have been some cream cheese involved. Sometimes they were opaque and sometimes more translucent, and she seemed to enjoy messing with food coloring too. She had myriad molds that hung on the wall in her little kitchen. With each one she shared at family gatherings and her church, it's like each one was an offering to Jesus. Most of the family were Episcopalians. My cousins and I used to laugh looking the holiday's colorful concoction, turn our noses up, take some because our parents made us to appear polite. I always ended up eating all of it :)

  3. PJ, My granny used to make the best fried apple pies, too. No recipe, and I would love to have it! I think her pies were so amazing because she would fry them in Crisco in a cast iron pan and then sprinkle them with powdered sugar while they were still hot. Soooo gooood.


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