Homecoming Season Means Good Eating
My 40th high school reunion happens this weekend up in Greensboro. This morning, probably as you read this, my Yankee wife and I are off to a special brunch with some of my former classmates.
It’ll be nice to see them after all these years, though I’m not completely convinced we’ll hold that view after we get a good look at each other. A class reunion, someone said, is simply nature’s way of saying, “Oh, Lord. Do I look like that?”
Worst of all, it means I’m gonna miss that great squash casserole down in Red Springs. Today is the annual Homecoming Kirkin’ O’ Tartans Service at Red Springs Presbyterian Church, an event I’ve attended with my surrogate parents, Max and Myrtis Morrison, over the past five years. After the clan tartans are presented, the noble pipes are played and a good sturdy Presbyterian message about man’s flawed but not-entirely-hopeless nature is dispensed with, the matters get down to eating fabulous homemade things off paper plates and chin-wagging with neighbors on the lawn or down in the fellowship hall, always keeping a sharp eye peeled to the dessert table.
We’re deep into the heart of homecoming season, which is another reason to love autumn in central North Carolina. Every year at this time, churches hold homecoming luncheons or suppers that would make the Founding Fathers of this nation deeply proud to be an American, not to mention their country-cooking mamas. And every year, I vow I’m going to make a circuit of them all, gloriously eating my way across several rural counties.
This passion for real home-cooked dishes stems, I’m sure, from growing up in a rural Carolina family that had food-loving Southern Baptists on one flank and garden-mad United Methodists on the other, both of which took good home cooking to be central to Jesus Christ’s message to properly love one another and please pass the butter beans.
A small army of aunts and great aunts and second cousins and assorted family friends were experts at laying out jaw-inspiring spreads of their finest home recipes at homecoming gatherings, weddings and funerals on a geographical arc that ran roughly on a curling line from just north of Seagrove over to Carrboro and then back to greater Mebane. I still fondly think of this as my personal Redneck Fertile Crescent.
By a quirk of nature, our immediate family unit happened to be a lonely outpost of Lutheranism, and my own West Virginia-born mother had learned to cook real Southern-style food from a black woman named Jessie Mae Richardson down in South Carolina as she was recovering from a miscarriage, which meant my mother’s signature twice-fried, deep-seasoned buttermilk fried chicken and spiced deviled eggs were looked upon with mild skepticism until the uncles cleared the serving dishes and platters and everyone wanted her recipes.
Then, too, there were the fall festivals so common to my elementary schools. Every one seemed to have a cakewalk or a pie-eating contest at its heart, and every year, I had to take my mother’s caramel cake to the big event.
After all the donated cakes were numbered and placed on a table, participants paid $5 or $10 to walk over numbers in a circle until the music stopped. What I can’t seem to recall is if one got to take home the corresponding cake or simply got to choose one according to a number drawn from a punch bowl. I’ve heard cakewalks described both ways. What I do remember once, though, is pooling my money with Della Hockaday and Bobby Eubanks and taking home a tasty Boston cream pie cake that we ate with our bare hands on the walk home through the autumn dark.
After that, of course, came my young reporter days, where I was given the keys to a day-glo orange AMC Pacer by my boss at the Greensboro News & Record and instructed to set forth and harvest “human interest” stories in a 50-mile circumference of the Gate City. Invariably, come lunchtime, I found myself at some country cafe that specialized in meat-and-three-vegetable specials, all home-cooked, always incredible.
In today’s franchised world, of course, local eateries that bother to cook and serve home-style vegetables are vanishing faster than pay phones and handwritten notes in the mail. Which only makes my ardor for homecoming season all the stronger.
During the two decades we lived in a small town in Maine, come late September, I typically found myself secretly pining away for cakewalks and homecoming lunch under the trees, powerfully missing cafes with “meat-and-three” home-cooked specials. Make no mistake, I loved almost every aspect of northern New England life — the great light, the sharpness of seasons, the smell of balsam and hardwood forests and the honest friendships — but I truthfully never quite warmed to the stark absence of a powerful regional food.
The closest thing to a real Southern homecoming supper I ever attended was an annual covered dish supper at our little Episcopal church, where every other dish seemed to be made of lobster attended by baked beans and macaroni and cheese and a chopped salad made from iceberg lettuce.
This wasn’t terribly surprising, of course. Perfectly natural, in fact. The first time I foolishly wondered out loud why there was no squash casserole, ham-seasoned collard greens, fruity ambrosia salad, yeast rolls, corn-spoon bread and maybe some nice baked cheese grits at the weekly supper in the fellowship hall, an elderly Yankee dame named Margaret Toothacher put me in my place by explaining that northern New Englanders historically derived their sustenance from the sea rather than the field — meaning the significantly shorter growing season, combined with no urgency to “ridiculously over-season food that would probably otherwise spoil” meant simpler pragmatic dishes and a strong affection for beans.
Even now, come September, lots of towns in New England advertise “Bean Hole” suppers and some of these community gatherings invariably bring out the odd radical cook who startles guests with some exotic Southern (New Jersey) granny’s recipe for steamed Brussels sprouts. I’ll never forget Norm Chewonsky — a true Mainer — stabbing one of these with his fork and holding up and saying, “This hee-ah’s proof of how short the growing season is in Maine. Check out this poor little baby cabbage no big-uh than a marble!”
Calling All Cooks
In fairness to my beloved Yankee neighbors, whose thin deprived Wasp lips had never tasted lightly fried okra or crusty sweet potato pie, our town common lay just five miles from a quaint postcard harbor that claimed to be the “lobster capital of America,” the place we always took our visiting Southern friends to eat “real Maine food” in the form of Gulf of Maine steamers and fried halibut and, of course, their approximate body weight in the sweetest lobster meat on earth — though I’m not really qualified to comment save for the blueberry cobbler, which is to die for. Every time my Southern daddy hit town he’d head straight for Old Man Day’s lobster shack and bring home a couple of monster lobsters the size of Volkswagens.
All this talk of unforgettable homemade food is making me terribly hungry, so I'm going off to lunch now – maybe Mama’s Kitchen in Vass or the Eastwood Diner, assuming it’s still there. Last time I checked, it had gone with the wind. Then somebody told me it was back.
In the meantime, the real point of this column is to shamelessly invite you to send me your church or community group’s cookbook for a special celebration of them in a forthcoming issue of PineStraw. We’d love to spotlight your favorite “homegrown” cookbook and perhaps feature a recipe that would be terrific for the Thanksgiving season.
Speaking of America’s greatest eating holiday, we’re also hoping to harvest a couple dozen memorable, fall-down-funny tales of Thanksgiving dinner disasters. We can all use a laugh this season.
Don’t make me have to phone up Norm Chewonsky for another one of his lame undersized vegetable jokes.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw and O.Henry magazines, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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