September in the mountains is an emotionally poignant time as it signals the end of summer and the beginning of fall in a dramatic show of color against a sky of brilliant blue. It carries an air of bittersweet longing accompanied by a scent of dying flowers and burning leaves as well as a sense of transition. Comings and goings, good-byes and tears all flood the soul like the swollen mountain streams. September is a time of changes that pull at the heart.
The mornings have become cooler with a hint of fall in the air. The days are still warm but shorter and the evenings chilly. Local churches organize homecomings and invite their members, old and new, to join in a day of reunion. There is singing of old hymns, delicious foods, handshakes and hugs through laughter and tears.
In 1971, I left my small Bethel community in September to attend college. I was a first generation college student and had little more than hopes and dreams of escaping mountain life to steer my course. My goal in life at that time was to leave this backwater community at any cost. This was a goal that I would both achieve and regret to some degree. Appreciating one’s childhood home is not a reality until a few years and many tears have passed.
This new world of freedom in a university was not only intoxicating but also filled with contradictions and disillusions. It was the 1970s. The Vietnam War continued hopelessly as young men died or came back broken in body and spirit. Racial disturbances continued. Richard M. Nixon lied to the nation about his role in the Watergate scandal. Our leaders were flawed. My newly found freedom was more than a little marred by the ugly truths of politics, wars and injustices. It was my first realization that life was far from simple. I was learning that personal freedom is rarely achieved without struggle and change.
I managed to avoid going home for months and when I did, I would pull out of our dirt road in my boyfriend’s VW bug early Sunday morning to avoid the inevitable church attendance. Finally in late September 1973, I was caught. I would attend the annual Homecoming at my childhood Baptist church. No argument. My mother was firm; for this, young lady, was a command performance. So on a clear, achingly beautiful September morning with a slight nip in the air and the leaves beginning to turn red and golden, I headed back to a building of mere wood and mortar that housed a lifetime of warm memories.
I had agreed to shed my faded jeans for a denim skirt but wore a faded peasant blouse on which I had embroidered flowers and symbols of peace. Despite my changing beliefs in politics and religion, I loved these good people who had watched me grow up and now welcomed me home. And it was with their hugs and their quiet show of love, I knew that I could still come home.
As the strains of “Amazing Grace” filled the air, I humbly joined the church members for dinner on the grounds. I knew that I was home. The plank table held comfort food for the weary soul; food that was as predictable and made from the recipes that were handed down generation to generation; foods that the women of the church had cooked at dawn that morning. Armed with a paper plate and paper cup of sweetened iced tea, I realized that the differences were not as great as I had imagined.
The smells from the food were intoxicating, as the preacher led the congregation in a blessing for the food, this community and the many joys of this earthly life. As I listened to the preacher, I opened one eye and as I absent mindedly brushed away a fly, I gazed at the beautiful array of food. I recognized the platters of fried chicken, potato salad, green beans laden with fat back, fried corn, fresh tomatoes, trays of deviled eggs and a multitude of congealed salads and desserts of all descriptions. All was simple and fresh, without complications.
The dessert table seemed endless with old standards like strawberry short cake, banana pudding, apple stack cake and numerous pound cakes and with new arrivals such as the sock-it-to-me cake and better-than-s-e-x chocolate cake. In the Baptist Church, the word sex was not uttered but spelled aloud.
The congealed salads were congregated at the end of the table near the desserts and could be found on every plate. They must be eaten quickly as they did tend to melt on a warm September afternoon and each church member seems to have a distinct favorite. The congealed salad in the South and in the mountains of North Carolina carries a history that probably began as regular bowl of jello spiked with some canned fruit cocktail. The dish evolved quickly from that humble beginning and became the star of the “church circuit.”
New “church circuit” dishes seem to begin with an initial preparation by women in a church, probably the Methodist, as I imagine their tastes to be more sophisticated than the Baptist. Once approved by the congregation at one of the many potluck occasions, the dish is then deemed worthy of making the circuit and travels by word of mouth or those little recipe cards to other congregations.
A host of congealed salads (most containing the inevitable crushed pineapple and Cool Whip) had made the circuit as well as the ever-popular casserole. In the mountains and rural South, these dishes were a definite departure from the simple dishes of fresh vegetables and meats. They combined flavors and textures and were exotic to the simple rural tongue. They caught on like wildfire. And as each new dish was tried and tested and ultimately made the church circuit, it was added to the annual church cookbook. Many of these cookbooks had separate sections for casseroles and congealed salads though I suspect that this also originated with the Methodists.
As I gazed the usual selection of salads, I recognized my favorite apricot salad as well as the blueberry/cream cheese salad and even a cherry Coke salad that became popular when Coca-Cola appeared in cans. But there — innocently nestled among the faithful was a newcomer — a strange green concoction with what appeared to be miniature marshmallows, a canned fruit and some brown objects. This new dish, my mother proudly crowed was ... Watergate salad! No one seemed to know why or to care exactly how this glowing green glob was christened “Watergate Salad” but it seemed to be all the rage.
Timidly, I made room on my paper plate for the strangely named Watergate salad, secure in the conviction that I would find its taste as disgusting as its looks. I was wrong. I identified the green fluffy stuff as pistachio pudding, the white blobs as marshmallows and the dark pieces as chopped pecans. The combination of sweet and salty unfamiliar to my palate was delicious. I was hooked and unabashedly returned to the table for two or three more helpings.
The recipe, tucked in the pocket of my bell-bottom jeans, was carried back to my dorm room. I impressed my new college friends with the dish and I continue to revive it throughout the years (adding red maraschino cherries at Christmas for a festive look). It is out of vogue now — replaced by other more sophisticated dishes on the church circuit, but I pull out the ingredients every now and again and remember ...
I remember the color of leaves in late September, the brilliant blue of an early autumn sky, the smell of dried leaves and wood smoke. I remember the moment in time when a still innocent young girl could return home and despite disillusion, despite the beginning of a cynical mind, could enjoy the sweet and the salty taste of Watergate salad at a church homecoming and shed a few tears of gratitude and homesickness for the simple life she had left.
Throughout the years I have continued to fix “Homecoming” foods but do change them to suit my changing tastes. I love the simple foods but choose to add my personal signature to familiar dishes. I add a dash of ground red chili pepper to the fried chicken and I bake chicken breasts with olive oil rather than with my mother’s lard scooped from a tin can.
I have numerous variations of the deviled eggs from a dash of curry powder to the addition of capers, cilantro or tarragon — all delicious. The changes may enhance the familiar tastes but the freshness and flavor in these good mountain foods remain the same. I may not get up at dawn to prepare my dishes, but I cook with the same love and attention that the women of my mother’s generation cooked their Sunday dishes.
While I wouldn’t dare change the sinful dessert recipes, I do limit them to once or twice a year and give the leftovers away as soon as I have had a helping. Too much “better than s-e-x cake” cannot be good for the waistline, but I miss the days when I could easily eat several helpings.
Old habits can be changed; new recipes can evolve from traditional ones; and old beliefs can be revised. I still hold the belief that God is larger than any one church or religion; that God is as present in the quiet of a forest or in the dark corner of one’s soul as in a church filled with golden offerings; that God is seen most often in the eyes of children and dogs.
I am still rather cynical about truth in politics and I keep a suspicious eye on the wealthy and the pompous, but I do believe in the possibility of change and the probability of transformation with love. While Nixon lied to a nation, Watergate salad made its debut among the old standards in a small Baptist church in Bethel, North Carolina. The simplicity of mountain foods can be enhanced to fit changing tastes and healthier habits. A young mountain girl could go back home again and be welcomed with open arms. If cynicism can give way to a heartfelt tears shed on a Homecoming Sunday in late September, then almost anything is possible.