In rural eastern North Carolina where I grew up, church dinners on the grounds are staples of summer. Church Homecomings are scattered throughout late spring, summer, and early fall with seemingly coordinated timing so that no two are on the same Sunday. After all, folks might want to go to more than one, depending on which church their extended family attends (or attended).
Homecoming – when everyone who ever went to a particular church comes home and brings all the young’uns and the grandbabies. It’s like a big ole family reunion. The laughter, the hugs, the embarrassing stories of youth, watching the kids run around on the same grounds you ran around on as a kid – it makes for a truly delicious bit of nostalgia. And the food. Oh my, the food.
Although technically a potluck dinner, a Southern country church dinner on the grounds is no average run of the mill potluck where people show up with just a skimpy little side dish. No, ma’am. The rule is you bring enough to feed your entire family and at least two other people so that out of town folks don’t feel so much pressure to perform. Because it is definitely a performance. I wouldn’t say the ladies are competitive, but heaven help the poor fella who yumyums someone else’s fried chicken if his own wife made fried chicken that day.
When the last amen is said, there’s no dilly-dallying. Dozens of country boys with uncomfortably snug neckties dutifully follow their wives, mothers, and sisters to the parking lot and return heavily laden with casserole dishes and Tupperware buckets and tubs. They follow the perfectly manicured finger of the church lady in charge who is pointing everyone to the correct table. Advice for the younger men: Remember the color of the dish you are carrying, what’s in it, and what table you put it on because you absolutely must put your wife or girlfriend’s food on your plate even if you have to search for it. The only acceptable excuse is that it was finished by the time you got to it.
More than a dozen eight-foot tables are stretched end to end piled high with everyone’s best dishes. First up – meats and main courses including sliced ham and roast beef, chicken pastry, pulled pork, lasagnas, and at least ten variations of fried chicken, followed by potato salads, seven layer salads, jello salads of every color, deviled eggs, collard greens with ham hocks, squash casseroles, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, scalloped potatoes (technically au gratin because, cheese), green bean casseroles, succotash, broccoli a dozen ways, corn on the cob, raw veggies with ranch dip, plates of sliced red tomatoes fresh off the vine, alongside a divinely heady selection of homemade pickles and relishes. Lots of biscuits, yeast rolls, breadsticks, and cornbread both baked and fried. And of course, plates of ham biscuits are scattered throughout just in case you needed a snack while waiting in line.
And desserts, lawdamercy! What can I say? It’s an irresistible confectionary dream or diabetic nightmare depending on your perspective. Banana pudding with toasted meringue, coconut cream pie with real whipped cream, cheesecake, chocolate layer cake, German chocolate cake, caramel cake, carrot cake, strawberry shortcake, Boston cream pie, lemon meringue pie, pecan pie, chess pie, apple pie, blueberry pie, peach pie (my fave!), puddings, trifles, cookies, brownies, and homemade ice cream. Oh, my! *I make most of these exquisite Southern specialties at home from scratch because I love to do it, but for folks who can’t make them at home, really SadFace because there is no bakery here that sells them.
So, when the little Mexican church we attend announced an “Anniversary Celebration” complete with a potluck dinner on the grounds, this little ole Southern girl’s heart was just all aflutter with excitement and anticipation. Oops. Hold the phone.
Sign up sheet? What do you mean, I can’t bring deviled eggs? All my Mexican friends love them. I can’t bring a seven layer salad either? They love that too!
Nope, tacos. Tacos? OK, so back up and punt.
Right now friends SOTB are saying, “yum!” and friends NOTB are going “huh?” We aren’t talking about those crunchy shells with meat-like filling that some consider tacos which I do love and recreate here in Mexico from scratch with healthy ingredients. Shhhh! But no. A real Mexican taco is made with soft tortillas, usually corn but sometimes flour so you can fold them or roll them up depending on your age and eating style, often with una copia, a second tortilla to give a little extra support. Basically, a tortilla is cornbread that’s been rolled out like a pie crust and lightly toasted so you can pile it up with all kinds of deliciousness.
So, the day arrived. We brought a large casserole dish of chicharrón en salsa verde (recipe below) and a 13×9 simple chocolate cake. I forgot that a lot of Mexican women don’t bake, and ovens are often absent from Mexican homes. Mine was the only dessert other than the official celebratory anniversary vanilla sheet cake. Faux pas? Maybe, but it was eaten, every crumb.
From the moment the church service was over and the people began setting up tables, the air was buzzing with a familiar church dinner electric excitement as people greeted friends they hadn’t seen in months or years. The menfolk paraded through the crowd with pots and pans full of the aforementioned deliciousness made by their wives and mothers and sisters into the sanctuary turned fellowship hall, and followed the perfectly manicured finger of the church lady in charge pointing them to the correct tables to display their chicken tinga, chicharrón en salsa roja, res con papas, nopales, rajas con crema and so on.
Kids eagerly scrambled to find their places at big round tables, to nibble on corn chips and frijoles refritos, to hear instructions from the church lady, and the blessing from the pastor.
And then, the most familiar tantalizing aroma tickled my nostrils as the top was removed from a nondescript metal box near the table. Carry me back, cochinita pibil (“Buried Little Pig”)! No time to discuss that now, but we absolutely will be comparing Down East pit-cooked barbeque to cochinita pibil in an upcoming post, and I’ll be asking my brother-in-law for the recipe for his famous sauce. Stay tuned.
This is what happens when I am unable to write for a long time; I can’t stop. Here I am already well over a thousand words and haven’t even gotten to a recipe yet! So, here is my husband’s very spicy, strongly seasoned recipe. This is definitely NOT a “no pica” salsa, but there were some habañero salsas on the table that were even spicier. Remember our motto, always make it yours. Use fewer serranos, less garlic, less onion if you like. Or more. Remove the seeds if you want. Or not. Up to you.
Nico’s Chicharrón en Salsa Verde
One medium onion
One small head of garlic or 5-6 large cloves
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp dried herbs of choice (we used epazote & oregano)
½ kilo (1 lb) chicharrón (fried pork rind)
Place the tomatillos (whole), serranos (whole with stems removed), garlic (whole peeled cloves), and ¾ of the onion (rough chopped) in a large stockpot and just barely cover with good water. Bring to a soft rolling boil and cook until the tomatillos are soft but not bursting, about ten minutes.
Please be careful with this step and use proper precautions. If your blender cannot handle very hot liquids, allow the veggies to cool completely before blending. You know that, right?
Transfer the veggies to a blender along with a cup of the liquid, the salt, pepper, and remaining quarter of the onion, chopped. Reserve the remainder of the liquid in a separate bowl. Blend on medium speed for one minute.
Return the salsa to the stockpot and let simmer for about five minutes, adding more liquid if the salsa gets too thick. Using a small piece of the chicharrón, taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Keep hot until time to serve, then break up the chicharrón and stir into the salsa.
This is the point where Southern and Mexican diverge. I love the crunchy chicharrón by itself and have eaten it plain since childhood. As an adult, I like to use the salsa as a dip with a little sour cream. But I my husband loves it this way, and it is a very popular dish. Enjoy!
***Y’all, just a little side note. As I was proofreading this article, the voice in my head had a decidedly more pronounced Southern accent than usual. Weird, huh?
Read more Southern Comfort Mexican Style by Neva here.