The baked Brie appetizer was my first clue that something was different about this church function. I glanced around to make sure I was in the right place. This was the church fellowship hall. But where was the Jell-O salad? Where was the mostaccoli? For the love of God, where were the cocktail weenies?
When I decided to switch my membership from the Baptist church to a United Methodist church, of course I expected certain doctrinal differences, and I knew I'd have to adjust to a whole new heirarchy. I absorbed the large information packet they gave me, detailing the church committees, explaining the history of the United Methodists and extolling the wisdom and wonders of the founder, John Wesley. But nowhere was there any warning of the culinary changes in store for me.
Food and religion have always been closely linked, I hardly need to point out. There's Communion, Passover seder, Shabbat dinner. But there is also good old church eats. If my Catholic father and Baptist mother had allowed my sister and me to choose between the two traditions as they had planned, the glazed doughnuts sold after Mass would have easily won me over. To think of it: suffering horrible internal torment over papal infallibility and other troublesome doctrines simply because of a penchant for fried dough.
My strongest memories of church food are potlucks in the First Baptist Church gym. The occasion varied--Christian Education Appreciation Day, the father-daughter banquet, retirement dinners--but inevitably the entire church was invited, and the entire church attended. The setup was informal: paper tablecloths for both easy clean up and instant entertainment for the young children to cover with crayon. Paper plates and cups were provided, but families brought their own flatware.
At one end of the impossibly long table running down the center of the gym floor, the spread began with an assortment of Jell-O salads--I was 21 years old when I first encountered people who had never had Jell-O with fruit in it, never mind orange Jell-O with shaved carrots. Next came the tater-tot casserole--a delectable combination of ground beef, green beans, and Campbell's cream-of-anything soup topped off with a layer of tater-tots and crushed onion sticks for garnish. The presentations were as predictable as the menu. The pastor would make some remarks, there would be a few jokes at the expense of one of the more active church members, Mrs. Kaye would lead a sing-along, and finally some restless kids would sneak into the closet and liberate some basketballs, and the entire affair would dissolve into chaos.
The abundance of casseroles and Jell-O salads was an example of Baptist abundance-that is, an instance of Baptists shunning "the world" and its hoity-toity gourmet nonsense in favor of practical fare. But don't be fooled, there was no lack of competitive culinary zeal. The Baptist women hovered territorially over their famous chocolate-cream or lemon-meringue pies. If "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's pie" was a commandment, literalists might face quite a quandary.
I never thought about potlucks as a reflection of the Baptist worldview as a child--I only knew that, while we had squares of Wonder bread and grape juice for Communion, the Catholics had wine and wafers (followed by doughnuts); the Presbyterians had lemonade and cookies. Episcopalians, so far out of our socio-economic-religious sphere that I didn't know any personally, were rumored to serve chicken fandango and champagne. At any rate, in the denominational food chain in our town, I knew the Baptists were near the bottom.
As a responsible adult-and a typical American consumer, I did some comparison shopping. I was looking for the theology of Presbyterians, the social activism of Methodists and the community of Baptists.
But I was able to be swayed by food. One night during my search I attended Tuesday evening Communion services at an Episcopalian monastery on the Charles River in Boston. At the end of the service, I went forward to receive the host and the cup. The monks' homemade bread melted in my mouth, and the homemade wine warmed my soul. After each service, they offered a simple soup and bread dinner. It was true, then, what a graduate-school professor told me about Episcopalians: they were "arugula" to the "iceberg lettuce" of evangelicals.
I never gave in to the Episcopals' simple feast, With such high-church grub, I assumed, there would be only high church fellowship--not the simple food and laughter I was looking for.
At the United Methodists, the women who had prepared our meal announced that the main course would be spinach and feta-stuffed ravioli with Alfredo sauce and an assortment of toppings, including artichoke hearts, pine nuts, and pesto. Good Lord, what was for dessert--flan?
Yet as our plates were filled, conversation began and stories were shared around the table. I realized that despite the gourmet trappings, this meal was a part of the fellowship I'd been missing since I left for college almost 10 years ago.
Each Sunday we pray "Give us this day our daily bread." Whether that bread is Wonder white or seven-grain cracked oat honey, breaking it together is an intimate act of worship.