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I want to make it clear. This piece is not religious, not about spiritual food or any such thing as that. A spiritual diet may not put on the pounds, but consumed to excess it has a known history of making people fat-headed or obese with fanaticism. It doesn’t take too much time with an extra 200 pounds of spiritual fat on your body before strapping on a suicide vest becomes an appealing way to lose weight by blowing it off.
It is also the case that I have nothing to say about manna from heaven. I hear learned scientists of great faith have shown how an otherwise unknown form of food could fall from the sky. I am perfectly satisfied with their work and will not for an instant question the unquestionable. But if I were the Almighty One, I’d have gone for something more definite and identifiable, like boxes of cereal. If packs of Fruit Loops and Shredded Wheat fell on you starving in the desert, would you not be convinced? I certainly would, although I have a strong inclination to favor shelling the unworthy below with cans of peas in fulfilment of the prediction that peas will be upon them. Peas are still very popular among the faithful and are a recommended part of your travel kit in certain parts of the world.
But as I am not writing about spiritual food or manna, I move along to the potatoes and gravy of this subject. When I was considerably younger (before people caught on that inviting me to such affairs was as bad an omen as a black three-legged cat), I took part in a number of weddings. As I recall, no dinner took place in the church basement. These were exclusively for the reception, where eating was restricted to a finger food warm-up before the wedding feast later that day. The church hall may have been more than adequate in size for the wedding diner but it lacked the essential feature of a bar. For that reason (except among the more Puritanical sects), the dinner had to take place off sanctified premises where the dancing got wild and hair could be let down. Most times the dinners were catered. I rely primarily on foggy memory based on usually spending enough time at the bar beforehand to make details of the food portion much less clear. The worst part of being in a wedding party was having to dress up in something that looked like it came off the side of a Philippine Jeepney or belonged on a holiday float in Puerto Rico. Even if the food was exceptional, the half hour at the bar plus the shame of wearing a carnation in multi-color tint was enough to fill one up with shame.
Some of us performed better at wedding feasts than others. I recall several where I did rather well and was much commented on afterward. After the best of these I awoke on the bathroom floor, not because I was ill but because in my heated condition I found that place to be cool and soothing. I am firm in my conviction there. I believe that was the last time any of my remaining friends invited me to their weddings. And as long as food is the topic, we might say it was a case of having cooked my own goose.
In any case, as years pass weddings become fewer and are replaced by funerals. Except for true bohunk funerals, no bar is needed. This allows the full flowering of church hall food. Different denominations have their own specialties. If you want to-die-for (and someone does have to die, believe me) scalloped potatoes, count on the Baptists. Baptist ladies produce heavenly scalloped potatoes in roaster-size pans. I’ve no idea what they do to achieve such high quality, but they certainly know how to pave the path to paradise with step-stones of scallops going up, up, up.
But if it’s ham you favor and divine coleslaw, then there is only one group that truly shines. Catholicism inspires the best in ham cookery and the highest excellence in creamy slaw seasoned with just a touch of tang. It is a delightful thing. Catholic ladies tend to brew a better coffee as well. I think something in the Puritanical side of Protestantism prevents them from cutting loose with a full-bodied brew. They just can’t risk the excess stimulation, and weak-knee coffee is the sorry result.
On the other hand, I’ll wager there is not a Catholic church on the North Shore that can do fish cakes worth a damn. Fish cakes are not ecumenical. If you want fish cakes as they should be done, you have to trust the Protestants. I’d place the fish cake crown on the Lutherans. At a Lutheran church funeral the fish cakes are a small sample of what the deceased is enjoying and we have to look forward to.
I can’t get off this subject without dessert. Doesn’t the heart flip at the sight of an entire table covered in precisely cut squares of cake and bar? A central feature of triangle pie wedges or round buns is a separate delight. Can you really take just one? The alternate to the side table offering twelve feet of sweets is each table having a “sampler” tray or two for guests to dip into as they wish. With weak Puritan coffee to wash it down, a person can be somewhat greedy but not suffer much nervous anxiety from excess caffeine.
If you’re an insider, you’ll know exactly which area church has the ladies who do the definitive North Shore dessert, rice pudding with either colored mini-marshmallows or bits of mandarin orange and maraschino cherry. Either of these is the be-all and end-all of church basement food. On that side of things, the Protestants have by far the leading edge, and I secretly suspect that the true masters of rice pudding are going to be either Swedish or Norwegian. You can bet on it.