AS IT HAS FOR OVER 100 YEARS, THE ANNUAL CAMP MEETING OUTSIDE ST. GEORGE PROVIDES NOURISHMENT FOR BODY AND SOUL, ENCOURAGING WORSHIPPERS TO PRAISE THE LORD AND PASS THE CHICKEN.
The day is hotter than usual for October. On a remote plot of land a few miles north of St. George, the afternoon sun is a tangible force, relentlessly beating down on the tin roofs of the unpainted wooden structures that form a circle. Dust from the dirt road hangs in the air without a breath of wind to move it along. It is the first time in many years that I have been here, and though the faces around me are different, it is as though time itself has been suspended since my last visit.
Ninety-nine cabins stand shoulder to shoulder on the hard-packed soil to form the framework for Indian Fields Methodist Camp Ground, and to provide shelter for the families and friends that gather annually for the collective religious experience known as Camp Meeting. Founded nearby prior to 1810, the camp moved to its present location in 1938, and its numbered “tents” have passed from generation to generation since their construction in 1848. Initially established in rural areas to provide common meeting space for small communities where physical churches were few, Camp Meeting has continued as a revered week-long tradition each October.
The simple dwellings are all constructed similarly, with the dining room providing the common area, and usually one long table that seats around two dozen diners. Most have a single bedroom downstairs to accommodate anyone that cannot climb the stairs to a honeycomb of rooms, each with enough built-in bunk beds to sleep a village.
The front porch of each cabin faces a grassy, pine-shaded area where an open-air tabernacle with seating for 1,000 stands awaiting the guest speakers that will rejuvenate the spirit of participants. The close proximity of the structures to each other encourages an unhurried atmosphere of community that is rare in an age of hustle and bustle. It is a delightful step back to a slower pace.
Neighbors, friends and family reconnect as snippets of conversation drift from doorways. Young mothers cradle infants, and old-timers smile with remembrance of years past. Free from the distraction of electronics and the limits of concrete sidewalks, children swarm like bees in the open space. Numbers pinned to the back of their shirts help identify the tent where each should be returned at mealtime or the end of the day.
A gaggle of youngsters turning cartwheels and flips forms a circle of worry when one of their own twists an ankle and goes down. They fan his red, sweaty face until someone comes running—most likely an aunt, cousin or mother, and he quickly recovers to rejoin the fun. Teenagers promenade in groups of four or five, and it is easy to imagine their great-parents walking the same paths, dressed in their Sunday best.
If faith is at the forefront of this gathering, food is not far behind. On the back side of each primitive tent, open-air kitchens steam and sizzle with ageless flavors that have drawn joyful “Hallelujahs” from generations of worshippers. They are the center of a flurry of activity this afternoon as local cooks, some of whom have cooked for the same families for many years, prepare the evening meal.
Cast iron cauldrons bubble furiously on the flat surface of brick wood-fired stoves, and floured chicken is swallowed up by boiling oil. The unmistakable perfume that rises above it is the sensory signature of Camp Meeting. The tantalizing scent is weighty enough to touch and I’m tempted to stick out my tongue to taste it in the air.
Ms. Rosa Rulack has been an institution at the stove of Tent # 27 for 15 years. “If they don’t call me, I call them,” she says, proudly raising the lids of the simmering pots in her kitchen to reveal the Southern classics that will feed over 25 people tonight. When I ask her specialty, she answers without hesitation, “Anything you want. I just love to cook.”
It is only the second year for Ms. Debra Davis, a few tents down, but the crinkle-cut rutabagas she slides into the pan prove that she has already made the kitchen her own. A love for cooking is the resounding motivation of the ladies of the ladle, and one can imagine that there is an unspoken competition for bragging rights for their various specialties. Most tents serve only the evening meal, but the families that take the week off to stay on-site enjoy three meals a day.
It is dinner time, and I’ve been invited to join the Jordan family in Tent #24 for the evening meal. “Faith, family, friends, and food—that’s what Camp Meeting is all about,” says Mrs. Miriam Jordan, whose family has occupied this tent for over 40 years. As soon as “amen” sounds at the end of the blessing, heaping platters begin to make their way around the table. Sliced ham and pulled pork, tomatoes and cucumbers, rice with rich brown gravy, grits, macaroni and cheese, and fruit salad are passed from one end to the other. The conversation is easy, and the spirit of Mrs. Jordan’s words is evident in the family’s collective embrace of a newcomer in their midst.
And then, the stars of this cooking show appear on the table, fresh from their baptism by fryer. The golden fried chicken that I have followed with my nose all afternoon is finally a reality on my plate, along with fried pork chops and fried side meat—thick cut slices of bacon, dredged in flour and deep fried. Praise the Lord and pass the side meat—if there is a restaurant in heaven, I am positive this culinary phenomenon will be on the menu.
Ms. Johnnie Mae Riley has run this kitchen for 32 years. She and Ms. Mary Hart—a relative newcomer of only 14 years, are the hands behind the platters and bowls, which like the miraculous loaves and fishes, never seem to run out.
I am tucked into the table amidst at least four generations of the Jordan family, and when the desserts began to appear it is my fervent prayer that the laws governing cholesterol are suspended for this meal, sodium has the day off, and sugar has no power. Caramel, red velvet, and chocolate cakes are dished up, along with a huge bowl of banana pudding set aside for me to take to my husband.
Despite having eaten the equivalent of a week’s calories, the experience is not complete without a trip to the stand where Archie Braxton’s whirling machine cranks out his family’s secret recipe for orange sherbet. The icy, once-a-year treat is a Camp Meeting tradition and a perfect finish to the day.
The air begins to cool as night falls on the circle of tents, and little ones are rounded up to get ready for bed. Though it is hard for me to even contemplate another meal, in the kitchen of Tent #24, where the pots and pans hang, washed and waiting for the coming day, Mrs. Jordan, Ms. Johnnie Mae and Ms. Mary sit planning the menu.
As the weekend approaches, they will come from far and near for this time-honored tradition of faith, family, friends and food. Honored to have sat at their table, I bid goodnight to my gracious and generous new friends, and leave Camp Meeting with both body and soul nourished—with an open invitation and a grateful heart.
By Susan Frampton