Certain things are expected when people gather for a community meal, explained Liz Layman, a longtime (49-year) parishioner at Batesville United Methodist Church. She said in her congregation it’s assumed that some people will always make their signature dishes for the monthly first Sunday potluck lunch. For instance, Dale Bailey, the pianist, always brings corn pudding and macaroni and cheese, she said, and people would definitely miss it if he didn’t.
Gloria Nash, who attends Mt. Olivet Methodist Church (where the pot luck is every fourth Sunday) said she was in kind of a rut for a while, always making pork roast with stuffing and baked apples. “If my family brought something different, people would question us,” she said, “and one church member found out a former minister liked butter beans, so she felt she had to fix them every time.” Now she, like Batesville’s Layman, finds it wise to vary the homemade food she brings to the church so people aren’t so disappointed if they don’t show up. She was planning baked spaghetti, garlic bread and salad for the April meal. “There aren’t very many of us, so we bring more than one dish,” she said.
In her early days with the monthly gatherings, Layman was a young wife, and she made plenty of mistakes. She remembers in particular a roast that was so tough that the people of the church just tactfully pushed it around on their plates. “I bought it too cheap and cooked it too fast,” she said. Another culinary mistake she made more than once: “Macaroni and cheese that’s just too dry. I learned that can happen even if you follow a recipe.
“In those days, of course, we all had huge gardens,” she said, “more potatoes, green beans and watermelons than we knew what to do with. Much of that has changed.” Layman, a retired U.Va. police officer and her husband, Robby, who’s about to retire as the police chief of Scottsville, raise “Black Baldie” cattle.
One thing hasn’t changed, though, Liz Layman said. “This is definitely home cooking, comfort food.”
After a few flubs in her early days, Layman has produced many well-cooked beef roasts and macaroni and cheese dishes. She’s definitely mastered the art of the congealed salad, and at the April potluck, served a sparkling orange salad with peach halves, and later made a black-cherry blackberry salad. “Mostly it’s what I have on hand,” she said. Connie Mays cans snap beans every year and brought a big bowl for that month’s lunch. Her husband, George “Eddie” Mays, pitched in with the preaching that Sunday while the pastor was sick. Over lunch, the congregation discussed his wonderful analogy of “clinging to Jesus the way Linus clings to his blanket.”
“It was inspired by Hebrews,” he said.
Diane Brown brought a colorful pasta salad and said she doesn’t really need a recipe anymore. Her dish of tri-color twists incorporated mushrooms and cheese, cucumbers and chicken. She tosses the ingredients with a mix of Italian dressing and mayonnaise for flavor and creaminess. Brown, a retired PVCC administrator, said she looks forward to the lunches each month. “People are so busy now, it’s a way for us all to catch up with each other.”
A few miles away, Holy Cross Episcopal Church—another small Batesville congregation—makes sure there are refreshments after each service. “At one time, some members thought it was getting out of hand,” said Barbara Spencer, “so there was a meeting about only serving coffee and the response was a universal NO!” Still, it’s hit and miss, she said, with a small package of cookies one week, and a huge spread the next.
“Some things might seem strange for after-church refreshments, but they’re fine with us,” she added. She remember someone bringing leftover pork tenderloin once, nachos another time. “If we’re really lucky, Laurel Wilheim will bake a pound cake or Ruby Canody will make a coconut cake,” she said.
Once a month, church members coordinate a more formal meal, a brunch, bringing dishes in crockpots and casseroles, all homemade, all comfort food. Besides cookies and cakes, there’ll be a pot full of cheesy grits, casseroles with ham, egg and potato, sausage biscuits and sausage gravy, made ahead and kept warm. “We will cook bacon right at the church,” she said. “It’s just better that way.” Lately, some church members have been encouraging more fruit for those with diabetes.
There’s no question that these after-church refreshments, both planned and spontaneous, are important to the connections among members, Spencer said. “In fact, we have one member who slips out before the service is over so he can be first in line for brunch.” At one time, the church collected recipes and published them online. But mostly, she said, the communal meals prolong the social hour, give people something to talk about and look forward to, and allow the parish home cooks to share their best work.
Liz Buxton, who pastors both the Mt. Olivet and the Batesville churches, said the importance of all forms of food in these small rural communities goes well beyond a pleasant meal. “Some of these people remember the depression, or just difficult times,” she said. “To share food when you have barely enough yourself is an important act.” That’s mostly changed now, but Buxton, whom the parishioners call “Pastor Liz,” said there’s a lot of thought among church leaders of all denominations on the role of a church that’s not experiencing growth.
“Maybe it’s not all about growth, or how much you tithe,” Buxton said. “When these congregations age and get smaller, you think about how best to serve them and how they can serve each other.” She mentioned a movement, called “Dinner Church,” that explores the origins of worship in light of today’s needs. “Think about it,” she said. “When Jesus wanted to communicate, he didn’t use an altar or any of the other trappings. He sat down with friends and strangers over a meal, and they talked.”
Exploring ways to deepen connections within the existing community, regardless of what may happen in 10 years or 20 years, will have a profound effect on those who have been here all their lives, she said. And, in the end, she said, even if growth is what you’re seeking, people don’t join churches because of the building or even the sermon: “You stay because people made you feel comfortable, talked to you after church, shared a meal.”
But it’s not only the small, rural congregations that find that food is entwined with church life. At Crozet United Methodist Church, Paul Malinowski considers it a privilege to provide dozens of muffins, or buns, or scones every Sunday after church. Malinowski is not your average home cook, though. He bakes in huge quantities for the Crozet Farmers Market and for private catering requests while working full time, and sees the Sunday pastries as his ministry. “It’s in my blood; it’s my passion,” he said. One Saturday afternoon, a mountain of cinnamon bun dough was proofing, while he mixed up the fragrant filling. Many pounds of dough would be rolled out, filled, rolled up, sliced, baked, cooled and frosted, an ambitious undertaking even for a pro.
Malinowski is grateful for the opportunity to share his talent, seeing it as a way to draw people in a growing community together. Would they stay just as long to talk if we were only serving coffee? I don’t know,” he said. “But I doubt it.”