Project scholar Dan Sack has been discovering what every active church person knows--food is an essential part of American church life. In the Christian tradition, communion elements--bread and wine--play an obvious part. For many churches, soup kitchens are a vital ministry.
For many church people, however, the informal meals of the church may be even more important. Coffee hours, congregational potlucks, youth suppers, womens luncheons--this rich variety of meals helps to create and shape a sense of community within a congregation, a community that is often more important to church members than doctrine rightly preached or sacraments correctly celebrated.
As our discussion elsewhere of the
fun book noted, church leaders looked for themes to give these congregational meals something special. Here is a theme suggested by the National Council of American Baptist Men in the Missions, the American Baptist magazine sometime in the late 1950s. This was the heyday of the western, with Roy Rogers and Daniel Boone as omnipresent media heroes. Thus, the Council suggested, a western theme for the annual Father and Son Banquet. It was sure to appeal to the boys, which was sure to make the fathers come. It was also appropriately manly, as the author notes--only men could make authentic western food.
A cynic--or a neo-orthodox theologian--might well ask what baked beans and a Roy Rogers six-shooter have to do with the Christian faith. They seem to reflect a concern with trivialities, if not downright capitulation to the culture. But for these American Baptist men--and for many other American Christians, then and now--these food events helped to build community, strengthened their families, and formed a haven from the world of work. For these men, events like the father-and-son banquet were why they came to church.
Eight-year-old Timmy Smith twirled his six-shooter around his finger several times--just as he had seen Roy Rogers do it--and then impatiently jammed it back into his holster.
Hurry up, Dad. he yelled,
or we're gointa be late.
Timmy had been looking forward to this important event for days, planning just what he was going to wear--the brace of six-shooters he had gotten for his birthday, and his Hopalong Cassidy cowboy outfit. He hoped Dad would not wear his Sunday clothes, as he always did when he went to church.
Timmy was more than pleased when a moment later Dad appeared wearing jeans, checked flannel shirt, hunting jacket, and straw hat.
"All set, Timmy," he said, "let's go."
And where were they going? Why, to the "Spring Roundup," this year's theme for the annual father-and-son banquet, sponsored by the men's council of the First Baptist Church, Sacramento, Calif.
Who gets most excited about a father-and-son banquet, the publicity committee asked themselves, the dads or the kids? Kids, of course. So with this in mind the committee directed most of its publicity toward the boys, knowing full well that once a boy wants to attend the banquet, it is going to be pretty hard for dad to say no.
Announcements were made in the Sunday school, describing the program and the food in such delicious terms as to make any youngster's mouth water. Of course, there was a catchif you wanted to attend you would have to bring your dad. Arrangements were made to bring fatherless sons and sonless fathers together. The Lincoln Christian Center supplied eight or ten sons, who were delighted with such an evening out. Some men took two or even three "sons," so that no youngster would be denied the privilege of attending the banquet.
The newspapers were not neglected, either. A story with a picture ran in the Sacramento Bee. The picture showed the cook (one of the laymen) dressed in culinary attire, leaning over a huge kettle and ladling out some of the chuck-wagon stew for the council president to taste.
Of course, the committee used the church bulletin, too. The vigorous promotion really paid off in an attendance of over two hundred dads and sons.
When Timmy Smith and his dad arrived at the church, there was no need to ask where the banquet was being held. One glance at the banquet hall and any old cowpuncher could tell you that this was the "real McCoy." Up on the stage was a barnyard scene, and tilted against the wall was an old weather-beaten fence, upon which were hanging bridle and saddle. There, too, were the tools of the cowhand--pitchforks and shovels. The scene was made complete by a couple of wagon wheels and several bales of hay, partly intact and partly strewn around the floor of the platform.
For table decorations, brands had been cut out of construction paper and placed down the center of the tables. And, of course, the men and boys themselves supplied a good deal of the Western-theme atmosphere; for all were dressed in jeans, cowboy outfits, plaid shirts, straw hats, and the like.
If you cannot get Hopalong Cassidy for your featured guest--and most likely you cannot--then the next best thing is to get the favorite local hillbilly orchestra. And that is just what the Sacramento men did for the occasion. Practically every youngster had heard the Boots and Saddle Trio at one time or another over Sacramentos radio station, but to see the trio in person--that was really something! This singing trio, with guitar, harmonica, and banjo, delighted both the boys and their dads with their Western songs. The second major feature on the program was a magician.
If you happen to be short on magicians and radio celebrities, other program possibilities are equally entertaining. At another father-and-son banquet which I attended, the Y.M.C.A. boys' work secretary showed slides and told of a Rocky Mountain hiking trip he had conducted. The Y.M.C.A. wrestling team also put on an exhibition wrestling bout.
A speech usually kills a father-and-son banquet as far as the youngsters are concerned. So the Sacramento council did not have one. In addition to the Boots and Saddle Trio and the magician, they had a fine devotional service and group singing from a specially prepared song sheet of Western tunes.
No woman can produce that rare outdoor smoky flavor which makes the cowhand's under-the-blue-sky repast an unforgettable taste-bud experience. Such culinary art comes only from a man's talent. Of course, if you have no such "genius of the palate" in your midst, then it may be necessary, cowboy hat in hand, meekly to approach the women and ask them if they will do the cooking for your banquet. You might suggest the menu that is a favorite with the Sacramento bunch--chuck-wagon stew, baked beans, pie and cheese, hot rolls, milk and coffee.
Finally, a very important feature for the boys, the most Western costume contest, in which the youngsters paraded past the reviewing stand to compete for the prize awarded the most Western-dressed cowhand.
Lee H. Fridell, "Father-and-Son Banquet: Western Style Program for the May Men's Meeting," Missions (n.d.)
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