Dinners On The Ground
11/24/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
A Southern Tradition
By Anne B. Minvielle
As Thanksgiving time draws near, thoughts turn to setting the dining table with the best: damask tablecloth, fine china and crystal, and perhaps the family silver that was passed on through generations.
We in the South value our traditions involving holidays, food and family. Before serving begins, a blessing is given; reminding all that faith is an integral part of such a gathering. There is no doubt that in the South, no noteworthy holiday is needed to inspire a combination of faith, fellowship and food.
Table fellowship has been part of southern tradition for years. In fact, the word companion, those who join in food and fellowship, comes from the Latin com and panis, meaning bread. People join as companions in the context of a meal, and faith enters the picture as many of these get-togethers are ways to celebrate common religious beliefs.
Most southerners agree with the premise that Thanksgiving is a time for family and shared fellowship and food. But there are probably many who have forgotten that such celebrations occurred throughout the year, when there was a church service and then, “dinner on the ground.” Yes, there really was a time when the food, fellowship and faith were primary, with little thought to place settings and polishing silver.
For those who are novices at these celebrations, distinction must be made regarding the term “dinner on the ground.” Some may be confused by the term “dinner.” Actually, for those unfamiliar with southern lingo, dinner is the noon meal, while the less elaborate final meal of the day is supper.
The term, at one time, meant dinner spread on the ground on a picnic type blanket or a simple sheet. The spreads might be on the church grounds, which was why the tradition became known by most as “dinner on the grounds.” According to southern folklore, “dinner on the ground,” or “dinner held on church grounds,” is an occasion to share everyone’s specialty food dish in the outdoors, in conjunction with a church service, singing and praying. Spiritual hymns were an opportunity for all to join in praise and worship.
Historians of folklore speculate that the custom may have originated with Covent meeting and field preaching in Scotland. Author Alan Labbour, who has done extensive research on the celebrations, says that the term dinner on the ground “probably stems from the idea of a picnic-like communion on the ground at the cemetery.” Such speculation affirms the correct term of dinner on the ground, the ground of the cemetery. Families would gather for a day of working in the cemetery, painting family tombs and placing fresh flowers as a commemoration. Of course, there was reminiscing about lost ancestors, and finally, celebrating with everyone’s best dish.
Another noted connection between dinner on the ground and the cemetery was formed with the practice of remembering those who died in war. The term “Decoration Day” was reserved for decorating the graves of veterans. It is believed that the date of May 30 was chosen because the blooms of flowers were usually at their peek by then. Now, of course, we observe Memorial Day. Then, the cemetery was foremost in everyone’s mind, along with prayer for the deceased.
These meals, like the “pot luck suppers” of today, were ways to foster fellowship, sing, pray, share recipes, catch up on local news, and, of course, to eat. According to linguistic anthropologist, Shana Wharton, the results of the food and fellowship traditions, was a way to make a church group, a family. Although a work day and a social gathering, dinner on the ground has always had a spiritual aspect. The festivities often followed services and sermons by the pastor, and parishioners sang hymns and prayed.
The celebration was also termed Homecoming, a celebration of the founding of the church. Parishioners of the day, as well as past parishioners of the church who had moved away, or dropped from the fold, always looked forward to coming home to remember, pray and eat. After all, where else could one find homemade dishes of such a variety? Actually, there are those who believe that the only way to taste true southern cuisine and hospitality is to partake in the celebration known as dinner on the ground.
Cookbooks with recipes for the best of the best-contributed dishes were published as time went on. Favorites included fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, fresh string beans, corn pudding and myriad desserts, which always included pies featuring the fruit of the season. There have even been songs written in the Blue Grass tradition, to accompany the spiritual hymns of dinner on the ground.
The fellowship of the dinners was an easy goal to achieve. It often began with a discussion of “who made what,” or a friendly competition among cooks as to who made the best peach cobbler. Each church of any denomination had its own schedule for dinner on the ground, and the particulars grew as did the church population, who believed that fellowship was an outgrowth of faith. Blankets for a picnic on the ground, morphed into tables on the church grounds. Men of the church fashioned rudimentary tables from any boards they could find, often placed on sawhorses.
Author and historian Bob Bowman, author of “Dinner on the Ground,” recalls many of these celebrations. He remembers traditional hymns and a sermon. Most of all, he recalls walking outside after services to a fantasy of foods set out on these tables, unprofessionally fashioned from scrap lumber. In those days, there were no tents or canopies. There may have been umbrellas, or parasols, to shade the ladies from the afternoon heat, but assuredly no funeral home covers.
In typical style, after all had breathed a collective sigh of fullness, the men retired for a final smoke or chew of tobacco. According to lore, the women cleaned the tables and made plates of leftovers. And always, the community members went home whistling or singing a favorite hymn of the day or continued chatting about the dishes and who had “turned out.”
Father Bill Melancon, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in New Iberia reasons that fellowship associated with food is indigenous to our Acadian culture. He says, “Whenever 2 or 3 people are together, food is going to enter the picture around here. People become more relaxed. Their guards are down and when they are eating, there is laughter and fellowship.”
Fr. Melancon adds, “It is really not unlike the Eucharist at Mass when we come around the table, to share a meal, and also a sacrifice. The definition of fellowship is a coming together. In the case of Catholicism, the greatest thing is the Mass, when we come together to share a meal, as well as to share the sacrifice.”
“Everyone loves a pot luck supper because everyone always brings their best, and, of course, there are many desserts,” he says. These potluck dinners, which are often held in a parish life center or fellowship hall, are a more relaxed time, when people can catch up on news. He adds that there is also a lot of networking, in a good way, as people brings up topics that others have in common. He adds, “We get connected as a community, and that is something we are always trying to do, to build community.”
Fr. Melancon also points out that celebrations, such as dinner on the ground, fulfill the same purpose, even if they are ice cream socials, picnics or wine and cheese parties. People of faith join together in fellowship, with food, which is always seen as necessary for life.
Mary Vercher of New Iberia is a spry 81 years old, born in Natchitoches Parish. She says that the main church where she went to dinner on the ground was Bellewood Baptist Church, a small one-room structure. Vercher has vivid memories of traveling to the celebration with her mother and two sisters, the ride, courtesy of the mailman.
“One of our big events of the day was the cleaning of the cemetery,” Vercher recounts. “ Everyone put fresh flowers on the graves of their family members. I remember being there when I was about 6 years old. After we worked, we went inside to listen to the preacher, who preached forever,” she laughed.
Vercher adds, “After the collection plate was passed for the cemetery upkeep, we all went outside. There were long tables built out of old boards, and the ladies brought their food already cooked. They started the day before with cooking. We filled our plates and looked for a place to sit. We would bring folding chairs from the church to sit on, or the adults would sit on old home made benches. The kids sat on blankets on the ground or in the back of a pick up truck. It didn’t matter, as long as we were together.”
Every dinner on the ground featured classics such as chicken and dumplings and corn bread dressing, Vercher recalls. Among favored desserts were banana pudding and pies of all kinds. She says that there were always fresh vegetables, especially in May, Meat pies, the type still made popular by Natchitoches, were a welcome specialty, and there were always jugs of sweet tea. According to Vercher, “The kids looked forward to playing all day, and the adults looked forward to catching up on news. Everyone went home tired, and no one went home hungry.”
Vercher belongs to Westside Baptist Church in New Iberia now, and she says dinner on the ground and its spirit lives on there in the form of potluck dinners held in the church fellowship hall. She says that many of the favorite dishes remain, and serving and cleaning are easier with plastic utensils and paper plates. Always, faith and fellowship take center stage.
Pastor Zach Mitchell of Word of Hope Church in New Iberia is very familiar with the tradition of dinner of the ground. His congregation takes part in such festivities of food, fellowship and faith several times during the year, as well as at special similar functions for specific church groups, such as the youth or married couples.
According to Pastor Mitchell, “We plan the celebration and sometimes the church will provide the meat, and everyone will bring the side dishes. We have done it for quite some time, and it has come to be known as ‘Dinner on the Ground.’ Although sometimes we have our food and fellowship in our church building, we also have picnics in area parks and really do have our dinner on the ground or maybe picnic tables. But the principles of the tradition still hold true today.”
Pastor Mitchell explains that the term dinner on the ground is fitting for his church group because it is literally held on the church grounds. “It is a function of coming together, and we might ask everyone to bring their special recipe. We ask them to bring their special dish, but don’t eat it; instead, leave it for others to taste and try something new. We also ask everyone to prepare for the number of people in their family, and we always have all we want. Once the food starts passing, the really good dishes are recognized right away and are quickly gone,” he laughs. Of course, that only adds to the celebratory atmosphere and the fellowship of the dinner as people discuss recipes and what makes a certain dish special.
The very creative Pastor Mitchell promotes fellowship in a number of ways. He says, “Sometimes we will ask the family that brought a certain dish to explain why the dish is special to them. Those conversations tell a lot and promote fellowship, especially when families start to realize that they have more in common. Family history is brought up, and it is just a rich, rich time. Our people love it.”
“When we come in to church services, we come as individuals, and have our own problems to think and pray over. But when we begin to fellowship, we begin to see that someone else has gone through what we are experiencing. In my grandmother’s time, they had testimony. People testified about things they had gone through and how their faith had helped them. That is faith and fellowship,” Pastor Mitchell explains.
Pastor Mitchell has a firm grasp of the connection existing between faith and fellowship, and what food adds to it all. He comments, “Fellowship breaks down barriers, and it brings people on a level playing field. People get to know each other and pray for each other. We begin to see the real kinship in our faith. We see that we are better together.”
Fellowship in the context of a meal is scripturally based and has everything to do with faith. Pastor Mitchell reminds us of the Passover Meal. In addition, he says that in the Old Testament, if a person wanted to be in covenant with another, one thing they did was have a covenant meal. He explains, “The purpose of it was to solidify the relationship. The meal says they want to be in fellowship; they want to share a meal to do so.”
Pastor Mitchell’s words, “We are better together,” says a great deal about why dinners on the ground were once so popular and why they are re-emerging as opportunities for fellowship, singing and praising, and sharing faith. Such occasions are truly opportunities to experience “amazing grace.”