My friend, Lee Witte, invited me to our annual get-together lunch at the Bistro Garden and then presented me with a copy of the Mount Tabor Freewill Baptist Church, Creswell, N.C., cookbook.
The church on the cover looked starkly old American; brick and clapboard with a hardware store screen door that I could almost hear creaking as it opened and closed. I could see the Welcome on the service schedule board and felt it.
"The cooks in that book are all my relatives, starting with Aunt Clara who raised me," said Witte, whose Southern accent has a decided English tilt, typical, she says, of the 15th-Century coastal North Carolina settlement where she grew up. Her ancestors, she says, have been living in parts around Creswell since.
The Long Way We've Come
We ordered the chopped chef's salad and the waiter passed the crisp rolls. "Some iced tea?" he asked. "No, iced coffee," I said, and picked up a Cristofle fork to dig into the salad.
As I flipped through the pages of "What's Cooking at Mount Tabor," I found myself thinking about the long way we've come since the days when picnic macaroni made with canned luncheon meat and sweet pickles or "bar-b-que" sauce for pork or venison sounded good.
Or when meat balls stroganoff made with catsup and canned mushroom soup were considered company fare. And when squash casserole made with cream of chicken soup and stuffing mix could send you to culinary heaven and back.
Well, to tell the truth, I felt more than a twinge of nostalgia for those days, those tastes, sitting at the Bistro thousands of light years from the smell of squash casserole, sweet potato pudding, mayonnaise rolls or do-nothing cake, a dessert in which all the ingredients are mixed together and baked.
A beautiful platter of salmon with sorrel sauce floated by our table and was served with a flourish to a woman who looked like Princess Di.
I went back to pork-chop casserole on page 9 of the Mount Tabor book, which struck me as especially tempting. All you do is brown the chops, add a layer of sliced onions and layer of sliced potatoes and top it all off with a can of mushroom soup diluted with water. Then you bake it for an hour.
I could picture the casserole at a church supper brought in by Aunt Clara. A lot of love goes in those casseroles, I'll bet. And I'll take a bite any time.
"Some low-calorie dessert today, ladies?" asked Ralph, our waiter with a wink.
"Oh, come on, Ralphy, " Witte said coyly. "You want me to spoil my girlish figure?" Then her voice went down a naughty decibel and she moved the Emmanuel Kahn bifocals on her pert nose down a centimeter or two. "What have you got?" she asked.
Ralph rattled off the dessert menu: raspberry torte, apple tarte tatin, chocolate mousse and chocolate walnut cake, cheesecake and lemon meringue torte.
It just happened that my eyes were locked on the peach cobbler recipe on page 68 in the cookbook's dessert chapter.
"You have peach cobbler, by chance?" I asked, knowing he didn't.
"No, Madame, I'm afraid we don't," Ralph said, "but we do have iced fresh peaches, if that is satisfactory."
Frankly, iced fresh peaches sounded very satisfactory, but I wasn't up to them. I suddenly had a hankering for hot peach cobbler, with the warm sauce melting the homemade vanilla ice cream over the peaches.
"OK, honey," Witte said to me. "Go back to work and I'll get hubby to come pick me up," she ordered. She gave me a hug, drawing me like a Raggedy Anne doll into her buxom frame in a way that meant love.
Like the Welcome on the Mount Tabor Freewill Baptist Church service schedule board means love.
Like the pork-chop casserole and the hot peach cobbler in "What's Cooking at Mount Tabor."
Note: A copy of "What's Cooking at Mount Tabor" can be obtained by sending $5, plus $1.25 for handling, to Mount Tabor Freewill Baptist Church, Attention Ladies Auxiliary, Route 2, Box 177-A, Creswell, N.C. 27928.
PORK CHOP CASSEROLE
5 pork chops
3 medium onions, sliced
5 medium potatoes
1 can mushroom soup
Brown pork chops. Place layer of pork chops in baking pan. Top with layer of sliced onions, then layer of sliced potatoes. Repeat until all ingredients are used. Add 1/2 can water to can of mushroom soup. Mix well. Pour over casserole. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees 1 hour. Makes 5 servings.
AUNT CLARA'S SQUASH CASSEROLE
2 cups grated squash
2 eggs, beaten
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 cup grated American cheese
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup crushed saltine crackers
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix squash, eggs, onion, cheese, butter, crackers and salt. Mix well and pour into greased baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Makes 4 servings.
IRIS JEAN'S PEACH COBBLER
1/2 cup margarine
1 cup milk
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup sugar
4 cups peaches or blueberries
Melt margarine in skillet and pour into 12x9-inch baking pan. In separate bowl add milk to flour and sugar. Mix well and add to margarine. Add sliced peaches and do not stir. Bake at 375 degrees 40 minutes. Serve with homemade ice cream. Makes 4 to 6 servings.