“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” - Samuel Pepys
It was 1976 my family moved to Gulf County after having lived in North Carolina the first few years of my life. We hadn't been living on St. Joe Beach for long before we began attending Beach Baptist Chapel on St. Joe Beach at the invitation of Preacher William Smith. I remember sitting on our porch swing visiting with Preacher Smith one afternoon after my little sister and I had returned home from school, listening to him talk with my parents about church family and salvation and children.
When we visited, we found it to be a warm, welcoming little church, as most small town churches were. It was tiny then, because the building that is there today had not yet been built; that came a few years later. Instead, the congregation met inside the small wooden building that is still on the property, dwarfed by the larger brick sanctuary, serving as the fellowship hall.
But in the ‘70s it was filled on one side with dark-stained wooden pews where we met for worship service, and on the opposite end of the building there was a classroom area with tables set up for Sunday school classes and something I had never heard of, called "dinner on the grounds." For this, the ladies would cover the tables with white paper, taped underneath each table with pieces of masking tape.
Not long after we joined the church, quarterly dinner-on-the-grounds Sunday arrived. We trooped into the small sanctuary for the 11 a.m. service, and we children tried our best to sit still on the creaky old pews. When Preacher Smith finished his sermon and we sang a few verses of Just As I Am, we were dismissed and encouraged to walk into the fellowship area on the opposite end of the building, where we'd be greeted by friendly ladies who had spread out their offerings of tasty Southern food on folding tables for our pleasure.
As we walked through the line, carefully holding our paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils, I was amazed by the variety of foods that the small group of loving Southern women had put together for our dinner.
Cheesy potato, green bean, summer squash, and corn casseroles lined the tables, which had been carefully covered with white linens. There were salads of all varieties and hues, from jiggly red to leafy green, which I willingly tried, though with not as much gusto as I did the warm, cheesy casseroles. There were serving bowls full of boiled shrimp that someone's husband had likely scooped up in a net on his boat the day before. There were pies and cakes and banana puddings, and deviled eggs by the dozen. It was impressive. Those ladies knew what they were doing.
Of course, we didn't really sit on the ground, much to my surprise; some sat inside at the paper-covered tables, while other of use went outside. There we sat around on the porch steps and the gray-painted wooden walkway that connected each end of the building. Folding chairs were set around in random places so the ladies wouldn't ruin their Sunday dresses. The screen doors slammed time after time, as people went in and out to get a second slice of pie or another glass of iced tea. It was truly a time of laughter and fellowship that I'll always cherish the memory of.
I don't know if small-town churches still have dinners-on-the-ground, but if not, it's a tradition worth resurrecting, especially in these politically-charged days that have damaged so many relationships. Let's get back to breaking bread together, or scooping casseroles together, as the case may be, and enjoy fellowship without feuding. Let's celebrate what we have in common, even if it's only a love for banana pudding or a cheesy casserole, for a change.
In that vein, I hope these simple recipes will help kick off some cooking like the ladies did in Gulf County back in 1976.
Sausage and squash casserole
6 yellow squash, peeled (if using large squash) and thinly sliced
1 medium white onion, chopped
12 ounces ground breakfast sausage
1 cup sour cream
1 cup grated cheddar cheese plus 1/2 cup for topping
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs, or crushed crackers, for topping
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9"x13" baking dish.
2. Begin browning the sausage in a skillet set over medium-high heat.
3. When sausage is about halfway browned, lower heat to medium, and add the chopped onion. Allow to cook until translucent, stirring frequently.
4. Remove onion-sausage mixture from skillet and drain on paper towels.
5. In same skillet, begin sautéing the squash in the remaining rendered fat; if there is none, add a tablespoon of oil to the pan to assist in cooking.
6. While sautéing the squash, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add the garlic. Stir frequently to prevent sticking, about five minutes, then remove from skillet.
7. In large mixing bowl, whisk together sour cream and egg until well-blended. Fold in 1 cup cheese. Add the squash to the bowl, then add the sausage and onion mixture. Stir to combine well.
8. Pour the mixture into prepared baking dish, using a spatula to spread it evenly across.
9. Top casserole with breadcrumbs and remaining 1/2 cup cheese, distributing evenly across the top.
10. Bake until cheese is melted and topping is golden-brown, about 30 minutes.
This casserole, like all other casseroles, is best when shared with others. Enjoy!
This is the South’s favorite casserole; well, one of them, anyway. It’s so delicious and creamy, it’s the perfect comfort food!
Mama Steph’s Creamy, Incredible Macaroni and Cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons butter (I used salted)
1 10 ounce can Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese soup (do NOT turn your nose up at this, foodies; just trust it.)
3 cups grated Cheddar Cheese
3 eggs, beaten
13 oz. dry large elbow macaroni (I bought a 24 oz bag, and used a bit over half of it, so this is approximate)
1. Boil the pasta according to package directions; drain and set aside in its pot.
2. In a saucepan, melt the four tablespoons of butter over low-medium heat.
3. Stir in the grated cheddar cheese, allowing it to completely melt while stirring.
4.Add the soup, sour cream, heavy cream, salt and pepper, dry mustard, and red pepper flakes, continuing to stir until it is mixed well.
5. Add the eggs, stirring until everything is smooth and well-combined.
6. In a large pot, combine the drained pasta and the cheese sauce, stirring until the macaroni is evenly coated with cheese.
7. Transfer the pasta to a Pam-sprayed 2 quart casserole dish.
8. Sprinkle top with a handful of bread crumbs or crushed buttery crackers, if you like.
9. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes.
After mine looked somewhat bubbly around the edges, I turned on the broiler to gently brown the top, as this gives it that bit of a crust on top and looks nice.
Finally, here’s a Southern twist on deviled eggs you might enjoy sharing. I love having something unusual, though not too spicy or “weird,” to take to dinners. These are creamy and have a wonderful flavor!
Pimiento cheese deviled eggs
6 eggs, boiled and peeled
2 Tablespoons mayo
½ cup pimiento cheese (I used the Palmetto brand; it’s made with real cheese and has some green onion in it for extra flavor)
1 large pickled jalapeno pepper, chopped (I chopped a second one to use as topping for the eggs, and then I sprinkled them lightly with smoked paprika)
1. Slice each egg lengthwise, placing the whites on an egg plate and the yolks in a bowl.
2. Add the mayonnaise, pimiento cheese, and chopped jalapeno to the yolks, and smash with a potato masher or a fork, until mixed well.
3. Taste to see if any salt is needed; sprinkle lightly, if so. Stir in.
4. Fill each egg half with the egg filling, and then sprinkle the eggs with more chopped jalapeno; the pickled jalapeños are tender and not too hot, compared to fresh ones.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.