I have been a member of a little southern ward in Danville, Va., for many years. We do a lot of things rightwe love each other, we take care of other, and we are a family of many ethnicities, old and young, and more income and less income.
Plus, we do covered dish dinners right. Now, a covered dish dinner is to the South what the rest of the U.S. calls a “pot luck” dinner. In fact, you can tell faster where people hail from by what they call the meal where everyone brings a dish than whether they say “yall” or “you guys” or “youse guys.”
Ive been at the humble forefront of the covered dish dinners of the ward for many years. When our ward was really small50 or more on a good Sundaymy sister-in-law and I served as the activities committee for at least 10 years. We called ourselves “the party animals.” We did it alltalent shows, lip syncs, cook-outs, firesides, game nights, ice cream socials. And, of course, they all involved a long line of covered dishes on the folding tables set up first in the room we used for sacrament meeting and then the half-gym once we got our second phase of the building.
If we could drag a couple of warm bodies together and mix up some lemonade, we called it an activity.
Although age has a way of softening calamitous memories you are responsible for, the only one I recall was a hot dog dinner I was over. I thought it started at 7:00 on a Saturday evening, but the announcement apparently had said 6:30. I showed up at 6:30 to start the hot dogs cooking and a panicked bishopric member showed me a chapel full of hungry people.
“They want their hot dogs, Susan,” he said.
I too wanted them to have their hot dogs. I started throwing those babies into every pot we had. I dont remember how we entertained themmy sister-in-law probably sang show tunes. She moved out of town not long after.
Feeding a General Authority, oh my
So this past February it just so happened that we had a General Authorityour area Seventydecide to visit our ward conference. He had exactly 45 minutes between the time our meetings were over and he had to leave for more meetings in North Carolina. We decided to have a covered dish dinner during that time.
We always try to send people away from Danville with full stomachs because we want them to have happy memories of us.
Thats what we tell them at least. What we are hoping is that theyll love us and want to return and boost our attendance numbers so we can get our third phase and a full-size gym.
As an aside, little unknown part of the Lords vineyard that we are, we have experience having a General Authority visit. Several years ago we were blessed for about three years to have the daughter of an Apostle living in our ward, so at least twice he visited our ward on Sunday. What a treat!
Not only that, it was the only time in the 36 years I have lived in the ward I can remember everyone being at sacrament meeting on time. It was really quite disconcerting.
Back to the covered dish dinner . . .
Somehow, and Im not quite sure how, I wound up in charge of organizing the covered dish dinner for ward conference. Im in the Relief Society presidency; I have seven children, two stepchildren, and tons of grandkids; I have a reputation among the old people in the ward for being in charge of activities; and I can be found in the churchs kitchen a lot.
My conclusion would be that Im tired and should sit and be served dinner, but I guess thats just not how it works in the Church.
In fact, I have asked some of my children that if I dont show up on the Morning of the First Resurrection to please come get me out of the kitchen.
Even the bishop at the end of the whole covered dish dinner process asked “How did Susan wind up in charge of this?” No answer to that question. It just took on a life of its own.
First we as a Relief Society presidency decided to have a pre-determined menu. The bishop wanted barbecuein the South thats a pork dish, not an event or a verb. Everyone would sign up to bring either a crock pot of pulled pork, baked beans, tossed salad, chips or a plate of cookies.
We would use our Facebook group to coordinate. There! Done! Easy!
Heres how the posts went:
“We need volunteers for pulled pork, baked beans, tossed salad, chips, or cookies. Please sign up in the comments.”
Heres how the comments went:
Comment: Ill bring potato salad.
Comment: And Ill bring a cake.
Comment: And I have a fruit salad recipe my family loves.
Comment: “How much fried chicken should I bring?”
Arrggh. I was beginning to see why it took the Israelites 40 years to reach the Promised Land and Jehovah offered only manna.
I began to feel like a GPS, constantly re-directing, re-directing, re-directing.
The menu worked out in the end, although there were a couple of rogue pasta salads.
Never underestimate the power of lettuce
The salads, however, were another matter. Never, never underestimate how much salad is actually in one of those Sams Club bags of salad. I truly think they, whoever “they” is, use one of those vacuum sealers for suitcases found on QVC at 2 a.m. to pack as much lettuce into those bags as possible.
I bought three extra Sams Club bags of salad in case we didnt have enough donated salad. My plan was to hang out, where else but the kitchen, during the third hour of church to finalize the dinner and have it ready to throw on the tables as soon as the meetings were over.
At the last minute, however, our visiting Authority requested the Relief Society presidency to be in the chapel up front.
I threw the bags of salad at a helpful man and ran down the hall to the chapel. I left the backup-hot-dogs-for-the-kids warming in the oven.
Up front of the chapel I was doing a slow panic, knowing we had to have the food on the tables within 10 minutes of the meetings being over to get the General Authority on the road on time.
I worried about the hot dogs as I tried to paid attention. Finally, when the speakers iPad fell off the music stand, which I knew was wobbly but didnt have a chance to tell him without interrupting the meeting, I took my chance with everyones attention diverted and mouthed to the Relief Society secretary “Go check the hot dogs!”
Shes a mother and kindergarten teacher so she recognizes panic and went to check in the kitchen. She came back and gave me a thumbs up.
After the closing prayer, I raced reverently through the hallway and down to the kitchen.
Beating the clock
First we moved back all the children to the end of the hallway. I learned this lesson from an older sister years ago whose goal at every covered dish dinner was to keep my four hungry boys from the tables until the prayer was said. She has gone on to her eternal reward, but my boys remember her and I think I have become her.
I, the daughter of an Army master sergeant, started barking out orders.
“Table there. Another table there. Crock pots 1 and 2 there. Three and 4 there. Salads, beans, and chips in a line. Water to the gym. Faster, faster. Start the line. Pray. Pray faster. Amen. Scoop the barbecue. Chips. Beans. Move on.”
An obedient Elder Quorums president had been hauling around 240 bottles of water in his car for a week to cool them in the February weather. An early spring thaw would have been disastrous.
As it turns out, we had so much water left over, we drank water for every activity and meeting until June, I think. The scripture should really read “Cast your bread upon the waters and you shall receive water, and water, and water.”
But we didnt have as much water as we had salad. Salad, salad everywhere. The helpful man had opened my bags of Sams Club salad and put them in the big, plastic bowl that had resided on top of the refrigerator since missionaries first came through the end of the 19th century, I believe. (Im also the ward historian.)
I really think that bowl can double as a baptismal font in an emergency.
We had so much tasteless bagged salad that I was embarrassed some of the delicious salads some sisters had made didnt get eaten.
Next time I will remember. (Who am I kidding? There wont be a next time for me!)
We had s-o-o-o much salad, and even though we are trying to make our covered dish dinners healthier, there is a limit to how much salad Southerners who love their biscuits and gravy will eat. We sent salad home with everyone.
I dont understand one thing, though. I lost my tablecloths. I had bought plastic tablecloths at a dollar store. (Oh me, if you are still using cloth tablecloths for ward activities, repent immediately.) Then I had laid them out carefully in the kitchen according to shape of the tableround and rectangular.
But sometime between the meeting in the chapel and the setting up of the tables, the round tablecloths disappeared. It was a puzzle. I still look for them.
Oh well. Maybe the Three Nephites needed them for something.
All was well
In the end, the covered dish dinner all turned out beautifully. I think. We got a nice email from the bishop the next week with a thank you and nice comments from the General Authority about how much he appreciated the dinner and how smoothly it all went.
We have a ward picnic the evening of the writing of this column. The Relief Society is in charge of it. It was going to be at my house so people could swim in the pool. I backed out.
We decided to let the side dishes fall where they may. If everyone brings tuna and macaroni salad like they did one covered dish dinner back in the 1980s, its okay. I like tuna.
One of the Relief Society counselors is bringing a kiddie pool with ice and bottles of water. We had to go to Plan Bthe Elders Quorum president was in Idaho this week.
We decided not to use tablecloths. Im still in mourning.
And Ill be curious to see if anyone brings tossed salad. If its brown and limp, Im really going to be suspicious at just how long its been in their refrigerator.
My plan now is to bury my supposed talent for covered dish dinners for just a bit. The word on the street is our stake president is considering a stake covered dish dinner after stake conference this fall. He was at our General Authority dinner and has no idea what went on behind the scenes.
I might have to send him a copy of this column. I feel a fall cruise to the Bahamas coming on. But wait, he asked me to speak at the Saturday session of conference.
Hmmm . . . I wonder if that was planned.
Destiny, or is it consecration, keeps calling and it looks suspiciously like Tupperware.
Susan is a freelance writer in beautiful southern Virginia. Her novel “Miracle of the Christmas Star” may be purchased on Amazon.com. Her weekly humor columns for her local newspaper may be read at godanriver.com by doing a site search for her name.