In the days following September 11, the media seemed fascinated by Americans turn to comfort foods and social evenings with friends. Arugula at the trendy bistro was out, and meatloaf at the kitchen table was in. Those horrible days may have marked the only time that rural New Yorkers have found themselves at the forefront of any trend; around here, cooks have always been judged by the creaminess of the scalloped potatoes, and communal meals have been the cornerstone of social structure.
Where I live in the North Country, and I suspect in other rural areas of the state as well, it is possible to eat out every day of the week simply by attending fund-raising dinners put on by churches and service organizations. Clearly, theyve found a formula that works. In our village alone, we have the biweekly VFW breakfasts, the Church and Community Worker Lenten lunches, the Hospital Guild soup lunch, the Rotary and the Day Care Center spaghetti suppers, the Friends of the Canton Fire Station chili cookoff, the Presbyterian church international smorgasbord, the Zonta pie sale, and countless Methodist church dinners. And thats just Canton; the surrounding towns offer equally varied possibilities.
To some extent, the menus are seasonal: maple syrup festivals and bullhead feeds in the spring, strawberry or ice cream socials and chicken barbecues in the summer, turkey dinners in the fall, pastry sales around the holidays. But other foods know no season. Ham, spaghetti, cabbage rolls, roast beef, and chicken-and-biscuits can show up any time.
What makes these dinners and bake sales so successful? Their appeal is that they offer something to everyone involved. Sponsoring organizations like them because people are generally more willing to contribute money if they get something in return. Its easier to find two hundred people to eat a $6 ham dinner than to find two hundred people wholl put $6 into a collection jar. Since the labor and most of the food are donated, the proceeds go straight to the organizations coffers.
More important, though, is the way these events act to strengthen the group itself. Many have been going on for half a century or more. The wise old lady tasting the gravy and directing the kitchen operations probably began as a girl helping set the tables, then graduated to cutting vegetables and mashing potatoes under strict supervision. Along the way she learned the oral traditions of her organization and built strong ties to the other membersties that make her a more loyal member of the group.
Scalloped potatoes are a staple of community dinners. Every cook has a favorite additiona bit of ham, some grated cheese, more onion. It would be possible to eat ten different helpings of scalloped potatoes from ten cooks and never find one that duplicated another. This recipe is a favorite of Ruth Trudell of Lisbon and her family.
6 to 8 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 cups cooked ham, diced
1/2 cup flour
1 cup grated sharp cheddar (optional)
Mix all the ingredients together in a large greased baking dish. Pour in enough milk to cover the potatoes. If desired, add a cup of grated cheddar. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
The organizations are not the only ones to benefit from these meals. As we were reminded by September 11, humans are social creatures who need to feel connected to friends and family. One good way to achieve this connection is to work together for a common cause. That work might be as draining as standing for several hours stirring a cauldron of gravy or as pleasant as tucking into a piece of homemade peach pie in the church hall. In any case it provides a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself.
Since time immemorial, breaking bread together has been a way of building community. Preparing and sharing traditional foods smoothes the entrance of a new member into a group and can cement the bonds between that groups established members. Theres a reason why radicchio has not made it onto the menu at the DePeyster Methodist Churchs election night supper. Not that no one ever introduces a new dish or ingredient to the repertoire, but it takes a long time to change the values of a community. Who isand who isnta good cook and what defines good food are part of a groups shared aesthetic, and threats to the comfort that belonging brings are not to be taken lightly.
The following selection from Good Food, Served Right (Canton, NY: Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, 2000) describes some of the preparations for the semiannual chicken-and-biscuit dinner given by the Pierrepont Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary. In the account of Judy Hoyt, the president, we see the pride of belonging, the shared system of values, and the sense of tradition that underlie all community meals.
Our Election Day dinner started many years ago. People know about us, and some travel for miles to eat our chicken and biscuits. We usually serve 360 to 400 people between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. The dinner includes mashed potatoes, chicken, biscuits, gravy, coleslaw, peas and pearl onions, a raw veggie tray (carrots, celery, radishes, and green peppers), pickles (dill and sweet), olives, cranberry sauce, and cake or pie.
Preparing the dinner is a two-day process. We cook all the chicken the day before, then at a night work-detail we debone it and refrigerate it. I keep all the broth and chicken fat for my gravy. That day we also put the cabbages and carrots for the coleslaw through the food processor and mix them together, but we do not mix up the slaw until the next morning.
The day of the dinner I spend the whole morning making gravy; its usually a three-hour job for me. I use large restaurant potstwo full ones for the dinner. For thickening the gravy I use cornstarch because I feel that flour makes it too pasty for such a large amount. It will take twelve boxes of cornstarch to make this much gravy. I mix one box at a time in a smaller kettle until it is a perfect consistency. Then I mix all the batches together in the big pots so the gravy is all flavored the same. Sometimes after you get it all done, you have to add more of some ingredients; you just have to taste it and keep working until its right.
We make the coleslaw the morning of the dinner, too, so it can season through. We chop the Spanish onions fine, then add them to the carrots and cabbage we shredded the day before, along with salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. Then we mix the whole thing very well with Hellmanns mayonnaise; dont use any other kind! Finally we taste it and adjust the seasonings to perfection.
We are usually ready to serve at 3:30 or 3:45. We use a steam table and people help themselves. We serve the coffee, Kool-Aid, and water once people are seated. This is an auxiliary function, but the firemen help us serve. We are proud of our dinner, but we sure are tired at the end!
Since time immemorial, breaking bread together has been a way of building community. Preparing and sharing traditional foods smoothes the entrance of a new member into a group and can cement the bonds between that groups established members.
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Spring-Summer 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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