The first two things you should know about dinner on the ground are: 1. It’s not dinner and 2. It’s not on the ground. Ok, actually, it IS dinner for Southerners, but I didn’t want to confuse folks who think of dinner as an evening meal. In the South, dinner is served once a week (at noon on Sunday) or possibly twice if there’s a holiday involved. All other midday meals are called “lunch” or occasionally “brunch” (for fancy people). The evening feeding event is called “supper.”
During my time as an expat Southerner, I’ve rarely heard the word “supper,” apart from that short-lived “supper club” trend that swept Los Angeles in the late 90s. But I try not to think of that, seeing as my only supper club experience involved stopping Gary Busey outside the bathroom to tell him, “I loved you in Carny!” and “Stay off the motorcycles!!” Yes, there might have been demon liquor involved. But as my mother always reminded me: I don’t have to tell everything I know.
While dinner on the ground may or may not be considered “dinner,” it is definitely NOT on the ground. Unless you are the type of person who doesn’t mind the occasional speck of dirt in your mashed potatoes or grass stains on your Sunday best.
I’m sure my non-Southern readers can’t wait to find out what this mysterious event actually is, so here goes: It’s a potluck meal after church on Sundays. I know, kind of a letdown – unless you actually GO to one.
I’m not sure how the tradition of dinner on the ground got started or how it evolved off the ground and onto folding tables. I suspect it had something to do with the desire to boost church attendance. Even the worst backsliders (and y’all know who you are) will endure a sermon and some hymn singing for an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of Southern delicacies. For free, no less! (Or at the low, low price of a two-liter Coke or a pack of those crappy dinner rolls parked next to the hot dog buns at Kroger.)
As a general rule – based purely on my personal observations – the farther into the backwoods you go, the better the food’s going to be. I suspect there are some city churches that don’t even do dinner on the ground anymore, which just seems terribly sad.
If you want a true taste of Southern cuisine at its finest, try to finagle an invitation to a dinner on the ground. I’m partial to the Baptists, but I’m sure a Methodist spread might do. You’ll find a funeral food worthy display of casseroles, meat-flavored vegetables, and homemade Dixie sweets – with the added perk that nobody actually died.
In case you ever happen across a dinner on the ground, here are a few helpful pointers:
1. Get in line early and often.
2. Do a little reconnaissance: know your options and save room for the best stuff.
3. If you encounter two or more versions of the same casserole, opt for the dish that’s most empty. Don’t hesitate to take the last serving or the person behind you might swoop in and beat you to it.
4. Avoid desserts with tell-tale signs of store boughtness like those dinky tin pie trays or cookies in a plastic tub. I like to make a sampler plate of everything that looks promising. But if there’s something special you want, get it before it’s gone.
5. Aim for the best seating option: a table with chairs. A chair without a table is trickier, but anything beats the last resort – the ground.
6. Don’t start fixing a to-go plate till everybody’s done eating. Wait till folks start retrieving their casserole dishes and then act quickly.This may sound counterintuitive considering how fond Southern people are of their food, but nothing makes a cook happier than returning home with an empty dish. And you can be sure folks are keeping tabs on which dishes moved the fastest. Leaving with a dish that’s still ¾ full is like being the last team member picked during P.E. class. But worse because who cares about P.E.?
Before you leave dinner on the ground in search of the nearest surface suitable for napping, make sure you find out who made your favorite dishes, praise them lavishly, and ask for the recipe. Don’t be surprised if you’re swept up in a spontaneous hug. Many Southerners equate food with love, so if you love what they cook, they’re sure to love you back.
What’s your favorite dinner on the ground delicacy?
Photos from Flickr Creative Commons: Green Bean Casserole by littlemaiba, Pecan Pie by leah1201l