There is always one. The elder sister wearing both her church hat and an apron, serving up food in the fellowship hall. She is the one who thinks of the folk sitting at those tables in only one of three ways. You are either the pastor, a member or a visitor. She will know who gets what to eat and how much, and she is most likely to whisper to another elder sister, “Seems like s/he only shows up to eat.”
Of course, the elder sister can be rough, but there is no questioning her commitment to serving food, and serving it with love.
Southern black church cooks do more than prepare food for the myriad church anniversaries and fellowship events such as the monthly Sunday supper, they are the arbiters of southern cooking tradition and the initiators of a black church’s food-related projects such as the fundraising cookbook and the selling of food plates to pay for everything from scholarships to new pews to community outreach. They are – for the most part – the women trusted to take the equivalent of a few fish and loaves of bread to feed people.
Southern Church Food
If you are expecting something fancy, then you will be disappointed. Southern church food is home-cooking for a hundred or more people. The staples: Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, greens and green beans, a salad of lettuce and tomato with the choice of Italian or Ranch dressing, a dinner roll, and your choice of a slice of pound cake or pie. You will drink water, red punch or coffee. There are variations of that menu, which can include roast and gravy, a ham, and maybe turkey with dressing and a peach cobbler. It depends on the budget and the cooks.
Those plate dinners generally sold on Fridays will either be BBQ or fried fish, spaghetti (depending on your church and region), a slice of white bread, and another side such as potato salad or baked beans. The dessert offering is cake or pie.
The southern black church repast meal is the premium version of whatever is served for fellowship suppers. There will be more food, more dessert choices, and a side-eye or two for those people (immediate family are the exception) who make frequent trips to the buffet line.
There are also occasions when the men will cook too. The pancake breakfasts.
Your plastic cutlery will be wrapped inside of a white paper napkin. The pastor and first lady have china and silver, and cloth napkins.
The Tradition You Won’t See
There is some behind-the-scenes wrangling you will not be privy to as a diner. The careful and tender creation of to-go plates to be delivered to the sick and shut-in members or to the custodian or to the members experiencing a hard time. Those plates are prepared first, and before the pastor’s meal.
You will not see them diligently and meticulously cleaning every nook and cranny of the church kitchen the day before.
You will not see them sitting with the ledger trying to figure out how to feed a whole lot of people with a small budget. You will only see the miracle of their handiwork on a dime.
If you are sitting up north somewhere, reading this story, then you are probably thinking you have seen these scenarios played out in your neck of the woods. You have. Southern black church food as heritage has traveled with the daughters and granddaughters of the women who cooked back home in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, South and North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
To celebrate southern food heritage is to celebrate the southern black women who created the tradition of serving food in the praise house.
As Maya Angelou said, “I like the country foods: the greens and the beans and the cornbreads and the biscuits. Not just for the taste, but because it infuses the house with an aroma that says “You are welcome. You’re going to have some good food. It’s going to take some time. And once you eat it you won’t want to leave.” The black church cook’s food says “welcome.”