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Preacher dinner

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
September 13th, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the fourteenth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

My family didn’t have many guests over for dinner. And when we did, it was one of my close friends who felt comfortable enough to sprawl out on the living room floor and chow down on Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza. So, reading about a stuffy, formal, and extremely important dinner in the life of Ruth L. Gaskins, the author of A Good Heart and A Light Hand, was a foreign experience for me. Her family’s esteemed guest is in the name of this post; it’s the Preacher’s dinner.

“No one had to remind us about our manners because it was understood that if you ever wanted desserts again, you’d be extra careful that day.”

Before digging in, the Preacher would say grace for literally everyone. Winston Churchill, random white men, and widows made the list of blessings. I’m serious. The evidence is here:

Excerpt reads, "The same voice that had been inspiring us since the end of Sunday school, was asking the Lord to remember not only this happy family, but also friends, President Truman, the former preacher's widow who had returned to North Carolina, Winston Churchill, the Mayor of Alexandria, the white man who was thinking of building a movie theater for Negroes, and out canary, and on and on. At last the voice would stop and the chicken platter would be on its way. The first stop at the preacher's plate eliminated the largest and fattest breast. As it passed around the table it emptied; a leg and a thigh for Mama, another breast for Grandfeather, on to my mother and my father, aunts and uncles, my brother and sister, my cousin, and at last to my plate. "Special Sunday" always meant a chicken wing for me."

Apart from dinner at Ruth’s house, the Church held community dinners where they served favorites like chitterlings (hog entrails), greens, potato salad, and trays of dessert. The food was a big operation, and the income was too. Ruth said, “Most churches are big business, but I’ve never known anyone who has ever complained about giving them money. They do so much for us, that we’re more than willing to keep them going.”

A page from a cookbook introducing the chapter, "Meat, Game and Poultry" featuring an illustration of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia
Ebenezer Baptist Church in Arlington, VA.

Just by reading the elaborate menus for Church events, I understand that it is a social hub and treasured piece of life’s fabric. I did a bit of research on why the Church took such an important role and learned that enslaved people had no choice but to hold secret meetings for worship. Before emancipation, practicing one’s religion and enjoying a sense of community were strictly prohibited. These freedoms are some of the greatest joys of being human, and necessary for happiness. I understand why freedom from slavery coincided with fierce and public dedication to a social institution that was cruelly withheld for so long. This cookbook told me more about family life, religion, and what mattered than I remember from most history textbooks. Although my memory is somewhat fried, I know these relics of history offer something tasty and special.

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