Is there anything more Southern than sitting at your mama's table for Sunday lunch? You know, that meal you thought about as the sermon ended and the closing prayer dragged on and on. It was a meal worth spilling gravy on a silk tie.
To be truthful, I always knew what the menu was and never sat in church wondering about it. In fact, I did not sit in church very much at all. Growing up, I thought the world was divided into two kinds of folks: those who attended church, and those who stayed home to cook 'dinner'. My grandmother, we all knew, used the cooking excuse as a way to avoid church attendance, but I never heard anyone worry about the state of her soul when the state of her fried chicken and lemon pie were so divine. All my grandfather had to do upon his return home from church services was to take off his hat, wash his hands, and say a blessing. It was a compromise of religious differences they had settled into over the years.
Yet there were always plenty of hands around to help my grandmother make everything fresh and from scratch. Having seventeen people sit down to eat was not unusual (I remember because my job as a child was to set the table), and the children sat right at the table alongside the grown ups. Here is where I learned about politics, the weather, crops, the New York Yankees, snipe hunting, local folklore, and fishing. Lots about fishing. Where fish were biting, what they were biting, and how they should be cooked when caught, for starters. What I did not learn sitting at that table: gossip, hearsay, rumor, or anything at all dealing with the covered parts of one's body.
Attending church services is still a big part of Sunday morning in much of the rural South. But I'm not so sure that Sunday lunch at Mama's is practiced very much these days. Where we live, church members often try to persuade church leaders to schedule services to end early enough for those attending to make it to the local restaurants before the lines get too long. I've eaten at some of these restaurants, so I can tell you this is a real shame. It pains me to think some child will remember as her Sunday lunch the instant pudding at Ryan's and that her parents were in a panic to get there before the lines were out the door.
I have always enjoyed planning and preparing Sunday lunch. I like getting up early on Sunday to get the meal started. I like getting out my grandmother's scratched and battered walnut flatware box and picking out which serving spoons and place settings we'll need. I like going out into the yard in my robe on a cold spring morning and cutting for the table baby's breath and a few jonquils and the fragrant hyacinths my husband's grandmother gave me for my birthday years ago. When they'd finished blooming, I just stuck the bulbs into the rich black soil of my backyard, and every spring it's as if Grandmother has come once again to grace us with her presence at our table. The blue of the hyacinths reminds me of the blue of her eyes. She could be a tough old lady, downright mean at times, but she was an excellent dinner guest.
Here is a piece of menu advice if you are thinking about re-visiting the tradition of Sunday lunch or creating a Sunday lunch for the first time. Stick with the favorites. Sunday lunch is not the time to experiment with odd spices and too many new recipes all at the same time. This past Sunday, I tried a new recipe that was so bad that we sulked around all afternoon trying to think of ways to get the memory out of the house. Even dessert didn't help, and everyone knows that Sunday lunch is never Sunday lunch without dessert and coffee.
None of us ever knew how my grandmother made that lemon pie. For the last thirty years we've tried to piece our memories together to make a recipe, but nothing yet has come up to that standard of blissful excellence.