89. Dinner on the Ground

24 Mar

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.)


Dinner rolls: Right!

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:

Whose green bean casserole will reign supreme?

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.

Dessert: YES!!


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

39 Responses to “89. Dinner on the Ground”

  1. Tori Nelson March 24, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    YUM! Sweet Corn Pudding (Proper Name: Cawn Puddin) is my fave!

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

      Ok, you got me. I must know what sweet corn pudding is. I’m pretty sure it’s not what my family calls “corn casserole,” seeing as that’s not at all sweet. Actually, given the Southern penchant for naming things randomly, it just might be the same thing.

      • Sam May 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

        Kim, since the original poster did not answer, “sweet corn” means corn for fresh or preserved consumption by people, versus “field corn,” which is used for corn meal and animal feed. Yes, I know people consume corn meal, but field corn is hard and not as sweet as you want in corn on the cob, or canned corn. As far as use for fodder, “any corn looks sweet to a hog.”

        So sweet corn pudding is, as the poster probably means it, fresh corn scraped off the cob with a knife or otherwise-useless gadget. Mixed with butter and an egg or so, and (perhaps) a tablespoon or so of flour or cornmeal for ooomph, baked in a moderate oven just shy of custardy firmness. With fresh corn of the Silver Queen type, stuff yo’ mouth and praise heaven.

        If you’re only used to something using frozen or canned creamed corn and a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix, well… bless your heart.

        • Kim Holloway June 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

          Thanks for the hilarious—and informative—explanation. I’m going to have to make myself some sweet corn pudding this summer. I must say, I’ve developed quite an appreciation for creamed corn now that I’ve tasted non-canned, non cafeteria varieties. My sister actually makes the frozen kind quite tasty though. I learned that her secret is adding a stick of butter.

      • Ami Partin December 12, 2021 at 6:43 pm #

        We actually had dinner on the ground or took our plates to sit on a wall in the cemetary. There was a huge concrete table but that was used to hold all the food. And it was held each year on “decoration day,” Most graves had new floral arrangements on that day if their families still kept up the grave site. Where I grew up every noon meal was dinner and every evening meal was supper. I didn’t know or use the word “lunch” until I moved out of the mountains. As for watching to see where each lady placed her food, we all knew who the “nasty” people were and didn’t want that food! And if you wanted a deviled egg, you best grab it fast! Wow, the sweet memories..

  2. Debbie March 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    Being a Catholic, we don’t do dinner on the grounds, but my dad was raised Baptist and he told us kids about this tradition. Sounds yummy — a big potluck with all the socializing one can stand! Of course, we Catholics do have our Lenten Fish Fries, but that’s a whole ‘nuther subject!

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

      I’ve never been to a Lenten Fish Fry, but if Southerners are at all involved, it’s probably very much like a dinner on the ground.

      With hushpuppies?

    • fred_flintstone November 10, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

      Great article…and you hit it on the head…it is dinner on the ‘grounds’….meaning, dinner is served on the ‘grounds’ of the church property. i asked my dad a long time ago about why we ate on the ground, he then explained the true meaning but that it has been shorted over time to dinner on the ground. (aka my dad is a southern baptist preacher for over 50 years so I know a thing or two about the subject).

      • Kim Holloway November 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

        Thanks, for the clarification. I never knew the term was shortened from “dinner on the grounds.” Makes more sense now.

        • Leslie Dalton May 18, 2019 at 11:46 am #

          and every good Southern Baptist Church has a cookbook. lol! Yum!

  3. Suwannee Refugee March 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    I thought I was the only one who called it this. I couldn’t find others here in the South. Maybe I need to look harder.

    • ssanderson March 24, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

      Great post…I’ve never really heard it called ‘dinner on the ground’ though!
      Being brought up 1st United Methodist, I can tell you that the potlucks can be pretty incredible; it’s not just Baptists! (Anything using can of cream soup, lots of cheese and in a cassarole dish will be there, in spades)! Baked spaghetti cassaroles are one of my faves…granted, we’re not exactly talking recipes out of Gourmet magazine.
      *mouth watering just thinking of all the good food you mentioned*

      • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

        Thanks, ssanderson, I’ve never had baked spaghetti casserole. How have the Methodists managed to keep this from me??

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

      Oh, no, you are not the only one. Keep looking! I bought a book for my dad, based on the title alone: Kudzu, Homebrew, and Dinner on the Ground.


  4. Renee Mason March 25, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    Ok, you fooled me today; I thought for sure with that title you were going for road kill! And you are so right that each ‘bringer’ watches the tables like a hawk, and will feel gratified for days if her dish is emptied first!

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

      LOL, Renee. I assure you, I’ll not be writing about road kill anytime soon.

  5. Joe March 25, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    Growing up Methodist (we were never as hard core as the local Baptist) our church dinners pretty much never involved the preaching and revivals. The dinners usually took place after church on someone’s place and usually by a little lake and consisted of a fish fry. For all of you that don’t know what that is, it is a bunch of men frying up mass quantities of catfish and hushpuppies in huge old oil drums outside (this was long before some company came along and tried to claim they invented these and called them turkey friers). All of the ladies provided huge containers of cold slaw, potato salad and the best pies and cakes ever baked. The only negative was usually the uninvited mosquitos but this was in day whey DDT was still used on the fields so even they weren’t so bad.

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

      I never thought about it, but you are so right about the “turkey fryers.” I definitely have memories of folks frying up catfish outdoors decades before that newfangled invention hit the market.

  6. Ricky March 25, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I think you left a very important part. When people start coming in, the main question being asked is, “Which one did “Bessie” make (Name changed to save hurt feelings)? People aren’t asking this to get their portion. They are asking so they DON’T accidentally put some on their plate. The mystery dish that has one sympathy scoop taken from it. Onion-pineapple casserole is one example.

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

      Oh, yes, can’t believe I left that one out!

      I am greatly disturbed just imaging onion-pineapple casserole…

  7. prayersfromthepeanutgallery March 26, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    It has always been one of our family traditions to actually eat…dinner…on the ground after church. If we wanted to go to a nearby park, we’d pile our food in and lay out blankets. If we just wanted to enjoy the spring sunshine, but be near a bed when the kids were ready to nap…we just spread the blanket out in the back-yard and ate our food and watched the kids play. In all seriousness, it is one of my favorite memories growing up.
    And my absolute favorite ‘dinner on the ground’ or potluck food is deviled eggs. Everyone makes them slightly differently, and every time they’re amazing to me.

    • Kim Holloway March 30, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

      Thanks for sharing those great memories. I’m not exactly all that outdoorsy, but I’m up for a picnic pretty much anytime. In fact, I’ve got an adorable pink basket that’s gathering dust in the basement…

      When I was growing up, it was never the kids who were ready to nap; it was the parents.

  8. Renee Mason December 16, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Hi Kim, Just a heads up that I gave you the Versatile Blogger Award. There’s some work involved, so please don’t shoot me! Hope you’re back on these pages soon.

    • Kim Holloway March 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      Hey Renee, Thanks for the award and for all your kind words! Once I get the blog going full speed ahead, I’ll try to get around to formally accepting it (aka doing the work).

  9. paige April 20, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    I’m a “Church of Christ”er myself, so we don’t call em “Dinner on the Ground” rather, they are just potluck sundays. But I have the fondest memories of carolina style bbq, home made slaw, beans (chock full of fat back), and the BEST home made rolls made by one woman in particular. Desserts, on special occasions at least, almost always featured hummingbird cake, somekind of dump cake, keylime pies, and the best cobblers. None of that store bought stuff at my little church.

    • Kim Holloway June 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

      oh, man, you have just made me mighty hungry.

  10. transparentguy April 22, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    I’m linking this to my blog entry on gospel tunes: http://theadventuresoftransman.com/2012/04/22/sunday-six/

    • Camworth Kettleman April 2, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

      I’m glad others call supper supper instead of dinner. Dinner is also at noon (or there round abouts) in Iowa and Minnesota.

  11. Boo Rhodes February 10, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

    Thank you. I had to go look that up because we have a facebook family photo group where my mother moved to California before I was born and everyone is talking about the picture of a “dinner on the ground” event in the 40s where everyone is standing outside a church with a long table cloth that is on the ground. And now I’m sure that my aunties are all shocked that my mother always called it a potluck.

  12. Robin March 31, 2016 at 7:55 am #

    Love your blog. I’m from northeast AL.
    Originally it was”Dinner on the grounds.” As in the church grounds. And it was originally to clean the cemetery or around the church building itself. You know raking and mowing. The men did most of that while the women cooked. We kids smoked out behind the well house, and whatever.

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  14. April Joy Eby July 17, 2021 at 11:58 am #

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