Material History of American Religion Project

On deciphering a potluck:

The social meaning of church socials

For many church-going Americans, church meals are often as important as services, doctrine, or ethics. Daniel Sack teases out some of the messages embedded in these meals in this paper prepared for the meeting of the project's scholars in late May. Sack is associate director of the Material History of American Religion Project.

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Anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that "the meaning of a meal is found in a system of repeated analogies." In this view, the role of food in a society reflects that society's structure and self-understanding. Elsewhere she states that "food is a field of action. It is a medium in which other levels of categorization become manifest . . . Food choices support political alignments and social opportunities." Douglas and her followers have applied this insight in their studies of food events in settings as diverse as native Americans in South Dakota and Italian-American Catholics in Philadelphia.

Most studies of food and religion in America focus on cultures that seem to be "exotic." Anthropologists and folklorists are fascinated with the foodways of Jews and ethnic Catholics, while ignoring food practices among white middle class Protestants; this prompts one colleague to wonder if Protestants eat at all. While foodways scholars ignore them, much of the rest of the culture laughs at food events in Protestant churches. The work of Garrison Keillor and such cookbooks as They Glorified Mary . . . We Glorified Rice are just two examples.

I believe, however, that we can learn more from Protestant church meals than just a good Jell-O salad recipe. No matter how laughable these meals might appear, this paper argues that, for these Protestants, church meals both reflect and shape the structure of the world. In Geertzian terms, they are both a model of and a model for the proper functioning of society. In particular, they serve these communities as models of gender roles and relations, the structure of the family and the place of youth, and the role of the church in society.

This paper examines these models by looking at two sources. One is a genre of how-to books I call "fun books." Beginning before the turn of the century, church organizations and publishing houses (mainly from Methodist publishers, but aimed at an ecumenical [if mainline] audience) issued a plethora of books telling churches how to develop their social lives. With titles such as Gay Parties for All Occasions, How to Plan Church Meals, and the Cokesbury Stunt Book, these books described in detail a variety of seasonal parties for families, couples, and youth. For each party the books include songs, games, "stunts", decorating ideas, and even recommended menus. Some programs include a religious address, while others are strictly for clean, wholesome fun. These books gave inspiration to busy middle-class congregations looking for fellowship ideas.

The other source for tracing the development of church meals is the experience of one congregation, St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago. Over its more than one hundred and fifty years, the members of St. Pauls have consumed tons of spaghetti, numerous salads, and countless cups of coffee. But, as Douglas would suggest, these dinners were more than just food. In their development they reflect changes within the congregation and in the larger society. And throughout, they have been analogies for the church's understanding of the structure of society.


St. Pauls Church, founded in 1843 to serve the German immigrants swelling Chicago, quickly became what Brooks Holifield calls a "social congregation." He writes that "in the late nineteenth century, thousands of congregations transformed themselves into centers that not only were open for worship but also were available for . . . nameless other activities." While Henry Ward Beecher encouraged seminarians to "multiply picnics," many congregations went Beecher one better and built "gymnasiums, parish houses, camps, baseball teams, and military drill teams." These new measures were important in a rapidly urbanizing culture, as the churches hoped "that the new congregational activities could overcome the impersonality of large churches and synagogues, eliminate class distinctions, attract children and their parents, provide wholesome amusement for young people, and draw men more actively into congregational work."

These churches also sought to provide alternatives to the city's tempting entertainment. In rural America, churches were the only social center available and thus could exercise some moral control over their members. The growing cities, however, provided too many temptations, particularly for young men and women. In such a setting, churches tried "to maintain influence over recreational choices by providing their own picnics and parties . . . If they could no longer comprehend a geographical region, they could still comprehend a wider spectrum of the activities of their members." In the urban environment, churches were just one competitor in the free market of entertainment; they knew that city dwellers had an almost infinite number of ways to spend their time and money—including amusement parks, restaurants, pool halls, and the dreaded saloon. In this competition, the church had to use every tool at hand, and many of them involved food.

For a largely immigrant congregation like St. Pauls, social events met additional needs. The church served the immigrant community as a community center, where people could both feel at home and experiment with assimilation. It preserved ethnic solidarity and tradition, battling the homogenizing forces of the larger culture. It provided opportunities for young people to meet and court, encouraging endogamous marriage.

To meet these various social needs, St. Pauls members built organizations for each group in the congregation. In 1869 a group of young men and women founded the Jugend Verein or Young People's Union, which held social events and pushed the congregation towards greater integration in American society. Men in the church formed the Men's Club, the Ushers Association, the Edgewood Bowling Club, and the Athletic Association. In 1892 the congregation's women, under the leadership of the pastor's wife, formed the Frauen Verein or Women's Union. In addition to their own social events, these "Mothers of the Church" took responsibility for taking care of the church building and cooking its meals. Other women's organizations included the Mothers' Club, the Dorcas Society, and the Sunshine Club.

While these organizations had a variety of purposes—study, service, education—many of their meetings centered on food. The meals not only provided nourishment and fellowship, but also modeled the proper ordering of society. Many of the church's meals, particularly before the middle of this century, were not only strictly for adults, but also gender-segregated. In their program and their menu, these separate men's and women's meals reflected gender roles current in the larger society.

Starting in the early years of the twentieth century, the Men's Club held annual dinners at the church. To a later, more casual age, these dinners appear quite formal, and mirrored the secular feasts of businessmen and fraternal organizations. The menus were large, involving multiple courses (often with French names) and always featuring at least one kind of meat, usually beef. The Club's annual dinner in 1913 was a four course banquet, featuring trout and beef tenderloin and concluding with cigars. This menu was a common one for men's dinners in the early twentieth century; Laura Shapiro writes that "the dinners planned for men were mighty, sometimes blatant, symbols of maleness. Commonly recommended for a bachelor supper or a men's club dinner were saddle of mutton, woodcock, strong cheese, brown bread, and hard-crackers." In this gendered understanding of food, a meal for men must be substantial—and include meat.

Like the menu, programs for the Men's Club dinners were weighty. The 1913 dinner, presided over by a toastmaster, featured a song from the men's quartet and the church's orchestra, a poem from the assistant pastor, and a featured address by social gospel pioneer Graham Taylor, "A Church for the City and a City for the Church." The 1918 dinner attracted more than three hundred men to a room decorated with "many American flags . . . in harmony with the spirit of the evening." "Forty gracious young ladies waited on the tables, while twenty more women, some young and others not so young, worked like Trojans in the kitchen." According to the church newsletter, the meal, featuring beef again, was "one of the finest meals ever served at a Men's Club dinner."

The Club's meals changed as circumstances changed. The meals went into some decline during the 1930s, reflecting the pressures of the Depression and perhaps a decline in the availability of willing "ladies." After the Second World War, however, Men's Club dinners returned with enthusiasm. In 1948 the club's leadership announced that all future meetings will be preceded by a meal.

We anticipate that the dinners will encourage more of our members to attend regularly, and will also spare the wives the trouble of preparing dinner on at least one night each month. We believe that most of you will agree that there is nothing quite like a good dinner to get any meeting on its way.

These meals were prepared by the women of church and served by girls. By the late 1950s, however, men from the church's Catering Committee were sharing in the food preparation. In the church newsletter the group crowed about these men-cooked meals, "Do you know, that we have the best cooks in Chicago to prepare the delicious food served at our meetings?" A 1958 "Ladies Night" dinner featured a male member's famous fried chicken, as well as "fellowship, entertainment, and 'Gemutlichkeit'" in the form of games and group singing.

Women's organizations also revolved around food, with meals that were as feminine as the Men's Clubs dinners were masculine. One such group was the Dorcas Society, made up of younger women interested in studying the social issues of the day. The newsletter reported that members of the society felt that "joining in at coffee parties or being studiously present at all society functions, bringing good friends together from time to time for a pleasant pastime is well and good enough in its place, but the Dorcas society is organized for greater purposes." Nevertheless, the Society did indeed eat at its meetings. A luncheon in 1938, the Society reported, was quite enjoyable; "the hour that is spent around the festal board surely creates a friendly feeling and closer fellowship between one another." On the menu for these luncheons may have been the "dainty, delicious sandwiches" recommended by How to Plan Church Meals. The author argues that "sandwiches for the tea table are quite a different thing from the 'he-man' sandwiches you want for a picnic, or the meal-in-one you serve to teen-agers. They are delicate, made for nibbling—and looking pretty is far more important that providing nourishment." Or lunch may have been a salad, as recommended for women by a generation of domestic scientists. As Shapiro notes in her Perfection Salad,

As a kind of non-food, the salad course had a non-nutritive function: it enhanced the femininity of the whole meal and made the scientific cook herself more socially palatable. Decorative, seemingly ephemeral, salads were perceived as ladies' food, reflecting the image of frailty attached to the women who made them.

Whatever fragile salads or dainty sandwiches, the menus for the women's luncheons were appropriately feminine.

Like the men, the women of the church also held more formal social events. A good example is the tea held to celebrate the dedication of the church's new parish house in 1952. The menu included "a plentiful supply of dainty tea sandwiches and cookies [which] added to the completeness of the occasion." The entertainment featured a "delightful and well-known reader" performing her writings, including "humorous verses, stories about gardening, household experiences, and family living which everyone recognized as true to life. All were told in such a happy manner that everybody's spirits were refreshed." An annual event for the church's women, perhaps parallel to the Men's Club annual banquet, was the annual Easter Monday luncheon, the cooperative effort of the various women's organizations. In 1961 the menu included "potato salad, jello molds, pickles, olives, meat balls, ham, fried chicken, and all the rest of the goodies." Over a hundred and eighty women attended, "replete with all their Easter finery." A woman comedian doing Swedish ethnic humor provided the entertainment. A committee organized the luncheon, headed by the same woman from year to year. "She always manages so well, it's unheard of to take the responsibility from her." Like the luncheons of the Dorcas Society, these formal meals modeled the femininity expected of the church's women.

Not all of the church's meals were exclusively for adults. The men's and women's organizations each invited their children to join them for the annual Mother-Daughter and Father-Son banquets, meals that reinforced these food-structured gender roles in the younger generation. The Mother-Daughter Banquet in 1934 featured a play called "Ruth, the Loyal," produced by the women and extolling devotion to mother. In later years the mothers and daughters welcomed visiting entertainers, such as "the Gypsy Troubadours," a balloon artist, or a fashion show provided by the Cotton Council of America. Each of the banquets included singing (with songs such as "What a Faithful Friend Is Mother," to "What a Friend We Have in Jesus") and concluded with a candlelighting ceremony, marking the passing of wisdom and tradition from mother to daughter. The Father-Son banquets were more obviously masculine, both in program and menu; in the place of poetry and songs of devotion, one such banquet began with a Boy Scout-led pledge of allegiance, with a dinner of roast beef followed by a tumbling act and Disney cartoons.

As the adult meals at St. Pauls presented a model of society's gender roles, food-centered social events for the congregation's young people presented a wholesome model of youth, an alternative to dangerous adolescent entertainment. Wholesome church-sponsored programs for youth have a long tradition in American religious life. Jonathan Edwards gathered his Northampton youngsters into neighborhood groups for "lectures in social religion." Patricia Tracey writes that these "evening frolics became legitimized as 'social religion.'" Churches began to address these needs in an organized fashion in the late nineteenth century, with the creation of the Methodist Epworth League, the Lutheran Walther League, and similar organizations. An Epworth League leader and self-proclaimed expert in "Phunology" argued in the early decades of the twentieth century that "young people will seek to satisfy the social instinct. It is God-implanted." But he warned that "if the church and the community do not provide their social life in other wholesome modes of expression, this God-implanted instinct, young people will seek outside the church for places, many of them undesirable, or positively dangerous." It was up to the church to model what a wholesome adolescence was like; it conveyed these models partially through food events. These activities were even more important to an immigrant church like St. Pauls, as it sought to assimilate its children into the mainstream, while providing them a place to meet and court young people from the same ethnic group.

To serve these purposes, St. Pauls put great emphasis on wholesome entertainment for its children and teenagers. Soon after the turn of the century the Young People's Union hosted a "necktie party" to encourage young men and women to socialize. "Each girl brought a necktie and an apron made of the same cloth. She would put on the apron and leave the tie at the door. As they arrived, each of the boys would choose a necktie, then enter the social hall to discover who was to be his partner for the evening." At a 1924 supper for the confirmation class, "the girls of the class furnished the entertainment while the boys furnished the best appetites and the noise, ably assisted, of course, by the girls. So it proved to be a real homelike party." In 1939 the congregation's youth welcomed the Young Peoples Federation of the Chicago area to the church; the main course was an increasingly common treat, chop suey, which fortunately could be extended to satisfy the larger than expected crowd. Since that dinner had depleted their budget, the Young People's League had a simple potluck Thanksgiving dinner. The church newsletter detailed the "simple" menu of "casserole dinners of noodles, vegetables and bean varieties, meat loaves, three kinds of potato salads, three varieties of cole slaw, salmon mold, five fruit and vegetable jello molds, potato chips, pickles, olives, bread and butter sandwiches, cakes, cookies, candy and coffee!" A member made the buffet table "look even more enticing, by directing two blue floodlights upon it." The "Chuck Wagon" at the Junior Congregation's western night features a menu that "was true Western style (at least the Council members who planned the meal seemed to think so)—beans, beans, and more beans, then dry bread, coffee, and doughnuts."

If the congregation worried about the temptations awaiting their young people after World War I, the anxiety reached a fever pitch in the 1950s. This was the era of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause. Anxious parents, worried that their adolescents growing up in the city might get into knife fights or drive Mercuries over cliffs, turned to the church for help. In these years the congregation organized a variety of activities to keep the youth coming to church; the planners knew that if you feed young people, they will come. Confirmation class "graduates" were invited to join the junior high fellowship at a party, "and if you don't come, there is something wrong with you because they always have a very good time and I sincerely hope that you will become a very active member of that group for they do a great deal of good and have lots of fun as well." Another year's dinner featured "plenty of good fellowship" and an "Inspiring Film" on "teenage witness." In the late 1950s the church turned the basement of the new sanctuary into a "Youth Center and Lounge" where the young adults "had a Smorgasbord supper followed by entertainment." In March 1961, the senior highs went swimming, and came then back to the church for pizza, which soon became a youth group standby. At the peak of the national folk music craze the youth group hosted a "Hootenanny" which attracted over one hundred teens from neighboring churches. "Pizza and coke were served by hard working mothers. When the evening was over, $33 was collected for the Mental Health Drive." The young people also presented three short plays as a "cafe-style theatre-in-the-round," modeled after Chicago's increasingly famous Second City company. "Food? Of course...Pizza, beverages, and other refreshments (all soft!) will be sold at intermissions." Members of the congregation were urged to turn out and show their support for the young people's programs. These events kept the church's young people out of real nightclubs and in the church.

The church's food events through much of the twentieth century presented its members with models for society. Adult dinners reflected gender roles, while youth events encouraged wholesome and churchly behavior. Changes in urban America in the 1960s, however, challenged these traditional models. Lincoln Park, the once stable neighborhood around St. Pauls, changed as long-time German residents moved further away from the center city. Large rowhouses were divided into small apartments, housing a mixture of elderly residents and a growing community of single young people. The family night suppers and youth activities did not appeal to these new constituencies. One pastor observed after a picnic that many families and new members attended, but "missing in our family gathering, however, were older adults and single persons."

In response, the congregation created food-centered social events to welcome these missing groups. In 1977 the church planned a "Family of Faith Thanksgiving" dinner on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. "Invitations have been sent to our shut-ins and it is hoped that other members of St. Pauls who may have no family nearby will join us." The congregation's strategic plan of 1984 called for specific fellowship programs to reach the elderly, including "at least one new, annual program that improves the sense of fellowship, appreciation and understanding of St. Pauls' German heritage." Given the need to revitalize the church, the outreach to young singles was even more important. In 1960 St. Pauls began to sponsor a series of "after church 'coffee clatsches' [sic] for the young 'career' men and women who so often join us for morning worship but who yet remain strangers to St. Pauls and to each other." As the neighborhood rebounded in the 1970s, Lincoln Park became the haunt of Chicago's yuppies, and the church looked for ways to attract them. It opened the gym for a monthly volleyball game, mainly for the young adults. "We then retreat to a home where repast of various sorts are offered on a Bring Your Own basis (usually wine and cheese)." The church also started a monthly series of restaurant visits and hosted progressive dinners to attract more singles. Previous food events at St. Pauls modeled traditional gender roles and nuclear family structures. In response to a changing urban environment, the congregation adopted a more inclusive model, accommodating single adults.

This shift also affected traditional family nights, which were broadened to include the whole congregation. The Family Life Committee wanted its meals to "be a time when groups of people having diversified interests (such as the volleyball group and the Frauenverein) could enjoy together some of the life at St. Pauls." In 1980 the Board of Elders organized a "Prom Night," but felt that it was "very important, given the theme, that this be 'billed' as an intergenerational event and that single people feel comfortable in attending." The newsletter promised that "there will be dancing, music, and just the kind of refreshment you would expect at a high school dance (with the little-something-extra to be found in the locker room)." A Mardi Gras party several years later moved further from the "family night" model; the newsletter warned parents that there would be no events for children and so encouraged them to leave them at home.

In general, however, St. Pauls shifted away from large social events in the 1960s and 1970s, for a variety of reasons. Most practically, there were fewer volunteers available to make the food. In 1967 the pastor asked the Mothers Club "to cook and serve dinners for some of the church functions." While happy to help, they replied, "we could not give him a definite answer at this time because most of our members are working mothers, and this leaves it up to those few mothers who are at home (working) and for the help of the others in the evening only." Nevertheless, "we always enjoy working together and helping our church." This decline in volunteer time reflected a larger trend in the congregation, as members had less and less time for church activities. In 1985 the Congregational Life Committee abandoned its monthly "Fun 'n' Games Nights" during daylight savings time, when people were distracted by other claims on their time. A year later the committee announced that it was reducing the number of church-sponsored social events "to prevent 'burn-out.'"

Alongside these practical reasons, the 1960s saw a tide of theological and ethical critiques of church social events; these criticisms no doubt reached St. Pauls, a liberal and theologically astute congregation. Just before and after the beginning of the decade, a group of social critics, most importantly Gibson Winter in his Suburban Captivity of the Churches, attacked Protestant "organization churches" for their "trivialization of the religious enterprise." Such churches were marked by "the bustle of activities which are only indirectly connected with the sacred aspects of religious life." Defined by their place in political and economic structures, organization churches become "a cult of consumption rather than mission and ministry." Winter was not alone. A young Martin Marty warned readers that "laymen can become so organized and their activities so routinized that the machinery of church life, smoothly oiled, takes the place of the deity in many a hierarchy of values." Critics like Winter and Marty called the churches to turn their attention away from organizations and activities—like potlucks and family nights—and to focus on mission and ministry to the city.

In the face of this critique, liberal congregations like St. Pauls shifted their food events away from feeding their own members, and shifted towards feeding strangers. At St. Pauls the "Mothers of the church" had been doing this work for years. Often during the Christmas holidays, members of the Frauen Verein and the Dorcas Society visited the indigent, taking food along. In 1939 "a large number gathered" and went to the county home for the elderly, making "many happy by treating them with sandwiches made with the famous Rubschlager rye bread, homemade doughnuts, cakes, jellies, etc." In 1940 the Dorcas Society distributed twenty-eight baskets of food at Thanksgiving and "23 at Christmas. The Christmas visit to the County Hospital brought gifts of 150 glasses of jelly, 337 boxes of cookies and candy, 30 shoulder capes, 200 oranges and 134 gifts for the 'forgotten men.'" This continued into the 1970s, as the women of the Dorcas Society and the Sunshine Club took Christmas fruit baskets to "the sick and shut-ins." Another group of women baked fifty dozen cookies for a Christmas party for the children of state prisoners.

In the 1960s, however, members of the church began to turn their attention—and their food—to urban problems. In 1968 the congregation helped to sponsor an summer education and work program for city youth, mainly minorities. "As with all teenage students they get extremely hungry while studying and working. To help solve the hunger problem, women in the congregations are preparing hundreds of sandwiches for daily lunches." As the neighborhood changed, more poor people appeared on the streets and in the houses of Lincoln Park. In response, a group of churches organized an open pantry to "provide food and other necessities for families which have been unable to make ends meet." Within nine years it had served over a half-million meals to needy families. The first Sunday of the month was "Pantry Sunday," when members brought contributions of canned goods to worship. Responding to a different needy group, the church also cosponsored a weekly lunch for neighborhood seniors in need of a good meal. Another agency supported by the church hosted a Christmas dinner for street people. "Donations are needed: turkeys cooked, without stuffing, stuffing, salads, cranberry sauce, salads, desserts. Volunteers are needed for kitchen duty and to visit with the guests."

But while members of the church took food out to poor neighbors, it began to invite them inside as well, after a precedent was set in 1968. During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, protesters against the Vietnam War gathered in a park near the church. When police used horses and teargas to clear the park, the pastors of St. Pauls opened the church as a shelter for young people fleeing the park and the streets. "They were invited into the gym and social hall to sleep. They were fed by some of the women of the church, many of whom could imagine their own children or grandchildren in this situation." It was a controversial decision, but it set a precedent for offering the church's hospitality to strangers.

With the gentrification of Lincoln Park and the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the neighborhood's homeless population grew in the early 1980s. Working with three neighboring congregations in the fall of 1985, St. Pauls opened its doors as a temporary overnight shelter during the winter months. By the end of that winter, the shelter had provided 3594 "bed nights", as well as serving a hot meal. "The Shelter provides an opportunity to do something good 'for one of the least of these, my brothers, and sisters.' It also gives you a chance to meet and talk with our volunteers." Volunteers spent the night supervising the shelter, spent an evening preparing and serving a fresh dinner, or helped shelter guests in the laundry room constructed in one of the gym's locker rooms. The shelter served meals once a week during the summer months. By 1991 the shelter had two staff members, visiting health care providers, and a literacy project. It served thirty-two guests per night. The food service facilities built in 1952 to serve St. Pauls' "large, cordial family," with its "scientifically-ventilated and attractive dining hall-auditorium-gymnasium" in its "festive setting unsurpassed in church units" now welcomed shabby strangers as well as prosperous members.

The church's social concerns even appeared in its social events. In 1988 they organized a "South of the Border Night." The elders, however, saw it is a "relative failure," as it "was not so well attended as similar events of recent years, except that South of the Border seemed quite popular to families with children." Looking back, several board members and the pastors

noted/surmised that people may not be regarding the church as a center of social life any more; that, in fact, they look upon the church as a center for volunteer activity in the community, and perhaps South of the Border would have drawn more people if it had been tied to fund-raising.

In a liberal congregation like St. Pauls, there seemed to be less time for simple socializing. People were looking for parties with a purpose. In 1985 "the Youth Group [hosted] an "all you can eat" Pancake Breakfast on Sunday, November 24. The proceeds will be used to support . . . [a] program for homeless and runaway teenagers." Another youth group pancake breakfast benefited Habitat for Humanity. Participants in a combination exercise and bible study group, called "Exercise and Exegesis," began preparing and distributing sack lunches for the homeless. To support this work they sponsored "a St. Pauls Motherhood and Apple Pie Bake Sale on Sunday, October 18, during coffee hour." Members were invited to "come and get your just desserts!" "Whether baking or buying, be sure to take part in this worthwhile event that will feed both the fortunate and the less fortunate among us!" Church members also attended a shrimp boil on behalf of a denominational mission program on the Gulf coast. These food events were an analogy for the shift in the congregation's self-understanding and its mission, from an inward-focused "organization church" to a outward-focused and mission-oriented congregation.

In moving from a "social congregation" to a "socially conscious congregation," St. Pauls reflected the spirit of a later generation fun book, which might be better called a "serious fun book." Simply Delicious: Quantity Cooking for Churches provides some of the same helps found in the earlier books—recipes, party ideas, cooking hints—but they are helps for a very different church. The book seeks "to encourage local churches to be responsible about serving food."

In a world where so many are hungry and malnourished, the church dare not be complacent about how much we eat, about how much we waste, and about the relationship between our greed and our neighbor's need. Also, in a nation where so many of us have serious health problems from eating too much and from eating unwisely, the church must call us to be good stewards of our bodies.

In place of recipes for roasted meat and jello salads, Simply Delicious featured meatless meals and complementary proteins. In place of ideas for the Valentine's Dance, the book had hints on feeding street people and running a fast to learn about hunger. One chapter verged on heresy: "Kool-Aid and Cookies Have Had Their Day." Simply Delicious is a "fun book" for a socially conscious congregation. St. Pauls even learned some lessons here. A newsletter urged prospective hosts and hostesses of its weekly coffee hour "to be creative with the refreshments you bring. Consider a fruit tray or vegetables and dip in place of cookies."


By looking at the food-centered social events at St. Pauls Church and in the fun books, we have seen how these meals present models for society, and how those models changed. In the early years of this century, church meals for adults reflected gender roles in their menus and programs, while food events for young people tried to make adolescence wholesome and safe. But these models changed in response to the church's environment. In the baby boom decade after World War II, the church's social events centered on families, but shifted to include single adults as yuppies replaced families in the neighborhood. And in response to both neighborhood change and ethical challenges, the church turned its food events outward, to welcome strangers into its kitchen and dining rooms.

Douglas and her fellow anthropologists argue that meals are a system of analogies to society and its structures. Applying this insight to something as prosaic as a Protestant church supper reveals richness in an unexpected place. St. Pauls' kitchen was not unique; American churches large and small include kitchens and fellowship halls, many built in the same post-war years. Some of these kitchens are more complex than others, but out of all of them has come an endless stream of coffee, spaghetti, cookies, and salads. Church members have devoted facilities, money, and labor—some of it paid, most of it not—to make these meals possible. The scale of this investment shows the central role these meals played—and play—in the life of these churches. Similarly, the fun books, with their ideas and suggestions, demonstrate the importance of gentility and fun to the white middle class churches that used this material. The experience of St. Pauls and the language of the fun books suggest a rhetoric of social gesture embodied in the church social events. Just as Douglas advocates "deciphering a meal," there is much to be learned from deciphering a church potluck.


Copyright 1997 by Daniel Sack. All rights reserved.


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