Oh how I remember the occasions when we entertained the preacher for Sunday dinner when I was young. We are country folk and a dinner party to us was a family dinner, picnic, wienie roasts; no cocktail parties and such. I was raised up in a little country Baptist church. It was as picturesque as one could imagine. It was white with a small, so as not to be ostentatious belfry and cemetery behind the church. We had a small congregation so the preacher did not get many amenities like a parsonage etc. He received a small salary and a Sunday dinner at parishioners’ homes. My mom always dreaded when her time came to host the vicar and his family. As kids we hated it too. We had to remain in our Sunday duds and we received a crash course of manners from Emily Post in preparation. We were also subjected to refreshers and review each time prior to the minister’s visit just in case we were too far relapsed into our slovenly ways.
There was one minister and his wife that were an exception. He was a young fellow and his wife was a school teacher. They were very casual down to earth people. This minister shared by Dad’s love of hunting and they would often target practice after dinner. His wife being an elementary teacher included us kids in everything and that made us feel important. They were actually our friends not just religious advisers. Now most of the other clergy were older and more stuffy or at least appeared that way to a youngster. My mom was and still is a good cook. She fixed a meal three times each day so cooking a big dinner in itself was not a matter to get frazzled about, but when the preacher came the bill of fare had to pass a different muster than her normal dinner table clientele. We always had a large garden and my mom always canned each summer. We would plant a delicious green bean named Half Runner. These were a high yielding bush bean but they were not string-less. I remember us spending many a summer afternoon sitting on the porch with a bushel basket of those little devils. They always made great table fare when prepared with a ham hock or some bacon. No preacher worth his salt can expect absolution if they turn their noses up to home grown green beans with ham hocks. The one negative element to this variety of bean is that sometimes when they were cooked the errant “string” would appear. This usually happened when the child labor portion of the prep crew began to get fast and loose with quality control. I have heard my mom shriek with disgust and say “strings cooked up on those beans!”
My mom could bake some fabulous yeast bread. She since has decided the frozen dough in the supermarket is a fair trade off for the trouble but back in the day she made it all from scratch. She was always in a fret in case her yeast rolls didn’t rise well for preacher dinners. They never failed her but I believe she secretly believed this was one way the devil could test her patience, by causing flat bread. This was back in the 60’s and Jello desserts and salads were all the rage. I don’t know when Jello came to be but it was sort of like a homemaker’s ace in the hole. It was colorful, you could mold it into pretty shapes and kids would eat it. My mom made this dessert with strawberry Jello cubes, fruit, whipped cream and nuts. You mixed it all together. She had a large old carnival glass bowl of her great aunt’s and I can remember that many times she served this ambrosia in that bowl.
As I said I grew up in the country and summer time meant outside play. To stay inside and play video games like today would have been as science fiction to us as a phone that took pictures. My grandma lived just up the road and she still kept a few chickens. She had bantams or “bantees” as we called them. I don’t believe she really kept them so much for the eggs necessarily because their eggs are really small. I think she just liked having them. They are beautiful colors and have an entertaining and feisty temperament. One day we were playing around the chicken lot for some reason and I found it! The holy grail of country kid’s discoveries; a rooster spur. You may not know a lot about poultry so I will explain that roosters have spurs on their legs that they fight with. These can cause serious injury to the other party if Mr. Leghorn means business. The sheath of these spurs is shed from time to time as the spur grows. This shed element of poultry weaponry was the find of a lifetime to me. Like any good archeologist I was none too shy about my discovery and sort of taunted my brother with it. The discovery occurred Saturday afternoon. We were probably at Grandma’s as to not be underfoot because Mom was in the throes of preparation for the preacher the next day.
I returned home with my prized relic to the wide eyed amazement of all who saw. Being country folk we didn’t have a safe. We didn’t even lock our doors. I wanted to find a safe place for my rooster spur where it would be secured but still on display. Where else would that be, but on the shelf of the overhead cabinet right above the kitchen counter. It looked so good there on full display just like a fine piece of scrimshaw in a maritime museum. Sunday came and we are put through our etiquette paces on the way to church. What not to talk about etc. We were not too stressed about the afternoon ahead because my cousin was going to come home with us after church. My mom probably hoped this would keep us playing and be out of the hair of the clergy. This particular preacher was an elderly gentleman. He and his wife were nice enough but had since lost some tolerance of the energy of youth. We head straight home after church so that my mom can put the finishing touches on the feast. She had just a short window of time before the guests of honor arrived. Everything was ready even down to the carnival glass bowl of the Jello ambrosia on the counter. On the way home I had been telling my cousin about this fabulous agricultural artifact that I had unearthed on my previous day’s dig. As soon as I get in the house I run to the kitchen cabinet to collect the treasure, but no rooster spur. The Hope Diamond is lost! Where could it be? As my mom is mumbling about the strings cooking up on the beans I simply ask her if she had seen my rooster spur. She is naturally distracted with the tasks at hand and answers “I don’t know”. I reply with anguish in my voice “it was right here”. She turns to see me point to the cabinet shelf directly above the Jello ambrosia! They say that life changing moments appear to move in slow motion. If that is the case this was one of those moments. As my mom’s my face began to transform into a real life version of the Edvard Munch painting “The Scream” I begin to understand the magnitude of this development. At this moment my brother comes running in to announce “the preacher’s here”. With no other dessert prepared or time to do so my mom dives into the ambrosia on a search and rescue mission unlike anything I had ever seen. The memory of the click on the spoon on the carnival glass still haunts me today.
With no luck in finding the treasure she warns me not to say a word about this to anyone. Not even to my brother or cousin. She can’t risk them giggling as the minister places a spoonful of that strawberry heaven into his mouth. This would remain just between us.. I am sure as the preacher said the blessing the only thing my mom was praying about was that rooster spur remain undiscovered. The meal went off without a hitch. The minister’s wife never choked on the strings on the green beans and the preacher ate so many rolls I thought surely he wouldn’t have room for dessert. I was wrong he believed he would have just a little bit of that Jello. I tried to keep my eyes contained on my own bowl of ambrosia per change to spy my lost relic but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the preacher. When everyone was finished I thought I heard a huge sigh of relief. Maybe it was my mom or maybe just the preacher making those noises you hear after a Thanksgiving founder. The rest of the afternoon went pretty quickly it seemed. From time to time I would glance over at my mom and she would give me a thankful look. It was pretty cool. We shared a super dark secret.
After Mr. and Mrs. Minister left my mom came clean to my dad about what had happened. I spoke up that I was still sad that something had happened to my rooster spur. My brother looked pretty sheepish and then hopped up and ran over to the fireplace mantle and picked something up. It could not have shown any more brightly if it had been 18 karat gold. The poultry relic find of a lifetime was safe and sound. My brother hid it to tease me. I guess I had been a bit over zealous about my treasure and he wanted to teach me a lesson. Oh I learned a lesson all right. So did my mom. I don’t believe she stressed out about the preacher dinners any more. She believed that a bit of divine intervention would see to it that all went well. As for the great poultry relic, I contacted the Smithsonian about donating it but they never got back to me. Somewhere in the span of time like most relics it returned to the earth from which it was extracted. I do have to say that out of respect of the turn of fate on that dinner my mom never served fried chicken again on preacher days. It was ham from there on out. For this and the Jello we say thanks. Amen.