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A story from the United Church of the Holy Covered Dish

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
March 10, 2004
A group of third-grade students were working on a world-religions lesson. The teacher asked them to bring an item that was related to their family's faith.
The first little boy said, "I am Jewish, and this is my Star of David." The second boy said, "I am a Muslim, and this is my prayer rug." The third boy said, "I am Catholic, and this is my rosary." The fourth boy walked to the front of the class and said, "I am a Methodist and this is my casserole dish."
I am also a Methodist, and it is true we love a covered dish supper.
For the unfortunate reader who has never attended a covered dish supper, it is a mass-feeding event in which a selected group of people bring a portable dish for many to share. Enough dishes are brought so that a collection of families have plenty of food choices from which to choose. In the South, it is an opportunity for the home cook to shine.
There is always a slight health risk involved in covered dish suppers, due to the fact that most of the food is being held at room temperature for a long period of time. But we Methodists are known for living on the edge, and we would never let something as trivial as a bacteria-laden, food-borne illness or something as insignificant as food poisoning get in the way of a good, covered-dish supper.
A covered-dish supper is not only about food, it is about fellowship. Sitting down with your family, friends and neighbors and enjoying a shared meal is one of life's greatest pleasures. As a child, some of my fondest food memories are centered on the fellowship hall of the Main Street United Methodist Church in my hometown of Hattiesburg.
I knew which of the "church ladies" were the best cooks, and I always kept a close eye on the door when those women made their entrance. I knew who made the best fried chicken and homemade cakes, and I watched closely to note the exact placement of those dishes making detailed, mental notes so I could return to those items.
There was an elderly woman at my church who had a houseful of cats. I will call her Mrs. Lancaster, may she rest in peace. Mrs. Lancaster's cats were known to climb all over her kitchen counters and in and out of her cabinets. It was not unusual to find a few dozen cat hairs in any casserole she brought to a covered dish supper.
When Mrs. Lancaster walked into the fellowship hall on covered-dish supper night, the crowded room fell instantly silent and all eyes focused on her. The entire church watched in measured stillness as she slowly shuffled across the room and placed her cat-hair-filled casserole on the table among the other offerings.
When the location of the dish was noted, the room once again filled with chatter and everyone continued conversations which had been cut short moments earlier by the Mrs. Lancaster's entrance.
We snickered at the unfortunate souls who weren't paying attention to her arrival, and especially at the late-comers who were clueless when it came to trying to figure out which dish was hers. Later, we watched as those uninformed church members ate, occasionally pulling strands of a thin, string-like substance from between their teeth. We called this covered-dish-supper practice "cat-flossing."
Up North, covered dish suppers are called potluck dinners. The food is bland and tasteless. Northerners sit around eating unseasoned meat and talk about how much snow they shoveled that morning.
Down here, in the epicenter of the Bible Belt, we eat fried chicken, potato salad, green bean casserole, broccoli casserole, chicken and dumplings, chicken pie, barbecue ribs, butter beans, peas, cornbread, yeast rolls, assorted pies, homemade ice cream, and coconut cakes, while simultaneously keeping a close eye on church members who own more than five cats.
Q: How many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Twelve: one to change the bulb, 10 to form a committee that will organize the covered dish supper to be held after the light-changing service, and one to do all of the cat flossing.
The Ultimate Green Bean Casserole
1 quart chicken broth
4 cans green beans, drained (14.5 oz cans)
1⁄4 cup bacon, diced
1 cup onion, medium dice
2 teaspoons caraway seeds (optional)
11⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups Mushroom Bchamel Sauce (recipe below)
4 ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained (optional)
1 cup Swiss cheese, shredded
1 6-ounce can French's Fried Onions, divided
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large saucepot, bring chicken broth to a boil. Place green beans in the broth and simmer 10 minutes. Drain the green beans.
Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, render bacon until it just becomes crisp. Drain excess bacon grease from the skillet and add the diced onions. Cook over medium heat for five minutes. Stir in caraway seeds, salt, pepper and Mushroom Bchamel Sauce. Remove mixture from the heat and fold in the green beans, water chestnuts, cheese and half of the canned, fried onions.
Place mixture in a three-quart baking dish and bake 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining fried onions over the top of the casserole and return to the oven an additional 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving. Serves six to eight.
Mushroom Bchamel Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil, light
1⁄2 cup onion, minced
1⁄4 cup shallot, minced
1⁄4 cup celery, minced
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic, granulated
1⁄2 teaspoon thyme, dry
10 ounces mushrooms, cleaned, sliced
(4 cups)
3 cups chicken broth
1⁄2 cup butter
3⁄4 cup flour
1 cup whipping cream
Heat oil in a three-quart saucepot over low heat. Add onions, shallots, celery and salt. Cook vegetables until tender. Add mushrooms and increase heat to medium. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, garlic and thyme. Bring back to a simmer and cook 10 more minutes.
In a separate skillet, make a light-blonde roux by melting butter and stirring in flour. Add to simmering broth mixture. Cook three to four minutes and add cream. Freezes well. Yield: 2 quarts.
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian. He can be reached at robert@nsrg.com.

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