By K. Ralph Devereaux
As a boy raised as a Methodist in the rural American South, I had a lot of interesting experiences and adventures, but one recurring event that I cherished and anxiously awaited was the wonderful phenomenon we called The Camp Meeting. The Camp Meeting had its beginnings among the southern states during the birth of America some two hundred years ago. Methodism was gaining a foothold in the American Colonies with the blessings of John Wesley and people were “turning to Jesus.”
Organized churches were literally few and far between, so Methodist Circuit Riders would ride on horseback to certain locations and hold preaching services. It was in these hamlets and hollers that the message of God’s love was preached and many Camp Meetings were born from the womb of that frontier spirit. The event was seasonal and was held several times a year, usually revolving around the planting and harvesting of crops.
In the spring, after the seeds were lovingly placed in the soil and began poking their little heads out of the earth, the crops were “laid by.” That is, the crops were weeded by hoeing and fertilized and given time to “get established.”
The time of waiting for the gift of soil, sun, rain was enjoyed at Camp Meeting. The wagons were hitched, provisions were packed for a several week stay, and the family was loaded into the wagon. This litany of preparation was experienced throughout the region until hundreds were gathered at the “Arbor” (an open-air tabernacle) and the “tents” (temporary wooden housing which surrounded the tabernacle) were scurrying with activity.
The Camp Meeting experience was one of smells, sounds and emotions, but mostly food.
In the early hours of the new day, you could smell the fragrance of the sparkling dew that greeted the grasses, trees and bushes with a sweet good morning kiss.
Soon, in the distance, the busy hands of kitchen dwellers would be crafting the first meal of the day. Fresh eggs were fried in bacon grease; biscuits were coaxed and petted until they obeyed the delicate touch of their trainers. They would then rise up on their hind legs in a 475-degree oven and roll over for a pat of butter and drizzle of cane syrup.
The grits would be boiled, salted and stirred until they were just right. The preserves from last year’s blackberry pickings would grace the table in a Mason jar with a reusable ring lid that often subtitled for a child’s bracelet. The aroma of bacon frying in the cast-iron skillet would convince anyone that they would starve to death unless they got a chance to eat at least five slices.
And then there was the brown gravy and sausage.
How was it possible to take ordinary self-rising flour, a little bacon grease, a pinch of salt and just the right amount of milk and make a topping for a hand-crafted biscuit which would produce something so good that it would make your eyes roll back in your head? Something so remarkable that it would cause you to emit a staccato moaning from the back of the throat that sounds a lot like Andy Griffin at the end of a Maxwell House Coffee commercial?
And speaking of coffee…coffee was the “descant smell” that floated above all other smells in a harmonic blending that added the final “amen” to the song of anticipation of a Camp Meeting Breakfast.
Hands were held, and prayers were uttered around a roughly-built table situated in the back of the tent on a saw dust floor. The adults sat at the head and foot of the table, and the children lined up on the long benches on either side.
Grandaddy would sit at his place around the table in his freshly-washed coveralls hanging over his best shirt. Scarred from years of standing against the elements after plowing acres of rocky soil, he would bow his head and offer a prayer of thanksgiving over the food and for the lives of the young and old who were gathered around the table once again.
The only thing better than a Camp Meeting breakfast was the overwhelming sense of love and the secure peacefulness that caressed the hearts of those who had come to Camp Meeting to worship God with friends and family. As good as the table set before them was, it could not compare to the table that God had set for the worshippers.
They would share this gift for the next two to three weeks. There was a generous portion of faith, with sides of song and prayer. Warm hugs would fill baskets in the center of the table and pats on the back would make the heart glad.
And for dessert, a time at the altar where tears and yearning for a better life, help with the chores back home and God’s protection over the children, would be savored until late into the summer nights. After a wonderful meal at the table of God, all there was left to do is to loosen the Bible Belt.
Camp Meeting Chicken Casserole
2 to 4 c. cooked and diced chicken
3 boiled eggs
1 c. mayonnaise
1 can sliced water chestnuts
1 can cream of chicken soup
Mix all ingredients. Top with crushed potato chips. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
K. Ralph Devereaux is a retired Methodist minister and a pretty good cook.