Greetings from the Ridge.
You didn’t mess with Mabel Cunningham. She was the queen of the potluck, and every time the hot summer months roll around I think back to the days when Mabel ruled our church’s kitchen. When Mabel died there was some talk about erecting a shrine to her tuna casserole. Other churches dedicate choir lofts and pianos to various departed congregational saints, but the Methodists find few things more holy that a potluck properly prepared.
When Mabel entered the kitchen of the fellowship hall a reverent silence fell upon the aproned ladies present. Small children would stop playing when the aroma of her corn chowder wafted into the room. If she arrived before church and left her Cincinnati-Style Five –Way Chili bubbling in the room next to the sanctuary, the minister would purposely cut his sermon short, knowing that no words of his could compete with scent of Mabel’s brew calling the flock to the potluck.
Mabel was not a haughty woman. In fact, if you’d compliment her on her Texas sheet cake she’d blush and say, “Oh, it was just something I threw together.” But any cook worth her spatula knew that a skill such as Mabel’s was not the product of luck or even study of the culinary arts. God somehow touched Mabel’s spoons in a way that would have given Moses and his bush some stiff competition.
Some women have the gift. That’s all there is to it. Being one of God’s non-gifted flock, I know that I’ve stood pan-to-pan beside women doing the exact things as I did with the identical ingredients, but somehow these angels of the crockpot turn out a dish that makes me want to hide mine behind the water cooler. Mabel was just such a kitchen magician. If the potluck was to be held on Sunday then the phone lines in Coonridge would buzz on Saturday as we all frantically called around the neighborhood to find out what she was bringing. If Mabel was doing her Greek pasta salad or whipping up a batch of her hot spinach artichoke dip then you’d better bring a dessert. No Methodist alive could stand comparison to this wizard of the whisk.
When Mabel would bring her Georgia peach pie, the assembled eaters would rush to the dessert table, grab a slice and plop it down at their place before entering the main line. She had this trick of baking the thing at high heat, causing the crust to set before the fruit had been cooked and thus creating this delightful little pocket of fragrant space between the two. None of us could match this. I’d turn up the heat and my crust would combust. Mabel held no secrets and was always glad to tell us how she’d managed to pull off such heavenly feats, but for me it was like Tiger Woods saying, “Just putt. It’s easy.”
We buried her with her favorite mixing spoon, of course first waiting until she’d passed away. It was a beautiful funeral and the ladies of our church pulled out all the stops for the post-service meal. We’d carefully plotted out our battle plans with each cook assigned to recreate one of Mabel’s famous dishes, and though we all fell short of her magic, but the thought was there.
I sat there at her funeral service listening to In the Garden and How Great Thou Art, Mabel’s two most cherished hymns and thought of the many people I know who provide the world with little dibs and dabs of beauty, mostly unrecognized and seldom making any headlines beyond the food section of the local newspaper. Fred Haley sat in the row ahead of me. As soon as the first snowflake hits, Fred has it swept off the church steps. No one pays him to be our de facto scooper, he just does it. Ahead of him sat Adelaide Burns who makes sure that not a Sunday passes without a spray of fresh flowers at the altar. I gazed across the aisle to see the Hagner family who are always the first to arrive at your doorstep with cinnamon rolls when someone in your household is ailing or you’re simply pressed to get the kids off to school. Row after row, I looked across our little congregation and saw good people who sought no notice, asked for nothing in return, and simply made a lifelong habit of giving, of doing good.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mabel Cunningham was the fact that when she cooked for herself at home, she was content with the simplest of meals. She once told me that there was nothing she enjoyed more than a baloney sandwich and a cold glass of iced tea in the evenings after her husband had passed away. She had the gift of magic in her fingers but she seldom used it for herself. Mabel said, “I don’t get that much joy from cooking. It’s the faces of the eaters that brightens my day.”
In a world often intent on taking, the life of a giver is indeed an occasion for a good potluck.
You ever in Coonridge, stop by. We may not answer the door but you'll enjoy the trip.