This is part of a series of stories on Oakland Christian Church, a small country church north of Columbia, Missouri. As Garrison Keillor would frequently share, nothing distinguishes a country church more than the food at the fellowship dinners.
The ice cream social is my earliest memory of Oakland. I was probably around five or six, The event was always scheduled for July. Along with August, it was the hottest period of the year, and this at a time when few people had air conditioning. The tables, chairs and pews were all set up in the yard adjacent to the old church under a canopy of large hickory and oak trees. It was at this event that I discovered the unmatched wonder of homemade ice cream.
While food is not a core tenet of the Christian faith, it is a bit peculiar how it can be the distinguishing mark of a local church. I spent most of my life attending “suburban” churches and the one thing I noted was how “suburban” the buffet. Not that I could complain. I loved the food. But it always brought back memories of the culinary events at Oakland. First and foremost was the annual ice cream social. Country churches in Boone County have had a long tradition of hosting barbecues and ice cream socials. Oakland has had them all at one time or another, whether it is stirring up homemade ice cream or roasting a pig or side of beef over the fire. My skills in cooking chicken were sharpened over the large pits where we sprayed the half chickens with lemonade before applying the BBQ sauce. These sort of events were often the big fund raiser for the country church where tickets were sold well in advance.
Homemade ice cream is quite special. It was mass production at this event as folks brought over their ice cream makers. Some had electric units, but most had hand cranked devices. One inventive soul converted a laundry machine into a giant ice-cream maker. (Now this is not a washer that we use today, but the kind where the drum stood on four legs and the so-called “spin cycle” was the one where you stood and fed the clothes through a press.) Church members spent much of the previous day and Saturday morning making gallons of ice cream, some of which were flavored with home grown fruit and nuts. And I am sure that some of the milk was from a nearby dairy cow. There was a large chest freezer that was hauled out into the yard to store the ice cream.
Complementing the ice cream was a table full of homemade pies and cakes. These were the sort of folks who did not often go to the grocery store to purchase a desert. Some of the fruit was home grown or purchased from a nearby orchard. The cakes were quite unique. So top off the cake with ice cream or top off the ice cream with soda, and you have the perfect evening.
I experienced numerous ice cream socials over the years at Oakland, but the first one was hard to forget because off to the side of the yard there was an old Studebaker that had been donated for a beating. That’s right – a beating. Even at that young age, I asked the question “Why?”. Regardless, I picked up a hammer and joined them, proceeding to bash in a head light. This was about 1960 or so, and was rather common at that time, usually tied to fund raising.
So for my formative years the bar was set pretty high on what would qualify as a genuine “fellowship dinner.” For those not familiar with the American Christian experience, these dinners would be held periodically, most definitely around Thanksgiving. Garrison Keillor would make a career expounding on the church fellowship meal. I got a lot of laughs from his programs because I understood his experience. If there is a word I could use to describe those meals at Oakland it would be “warm.” I felt comfortable. I liked the people I ate with. If you could go back in time and experience anything, an evening feast at Oakland should be on your list. The food was amazing. The vegetables were typically garden-grown. Even some of the meat was from a nearby farm. I cured hams and some of that may have reached somebody’s plate. The welcomed chill of fall would bring chili dinners. Nothing better than a bowl of chili with hot dogs, cheese and onions.
To be quite frank, there is nothing akin to the fellowship dinner outside of a church. It seems every banquet I have attended outside of a church is usually tied to fund raising or a featured speaker. Fellowship dinners have one simple objective – bringing people together over their own cooking. No tickets are sold. No fees asked. A bucket may be put out for contributions to cover the cost of the featured meat. Other than that, just come as you are and hope for the best. At Oakland, there was enough food to feed an army. There was an eight foot table reserved just for deserts!
I referred above to the “suburban dinner” that I would later encounter while living in the cities of Columbia and Juneau. The “suburban dinner” reflected the urban lifestyle. Not many of the dishes included food grown in their home garden because hardly anyone gardened. Many of the dishes were made from canned and frozen ingredients thrown together in casseroles. Side dishes were occasionally cartons of food purchased at the nearby deli. Not that I complained, because I still enjoyed the food and the company. But it was not the same as the country church fellowship dinner I knew as a young man.
Come to think of it, I can’t recall anyone in a suburban church boasting about their pickled relish.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner