Food, Faith, & Groundhogs
Originally published in fine newspapers, February 2006
If you don’t like the weather in ____________, just wait a minute. I’ve lived in four different states that each claimed this folksy quip as their own pronouncement of the unpredictability of their weather. Each attributed this to a favorite son. Oklahoma said it originated with Will Rogers. In Illinois they thought it was surely in one of Abe Lincoln’s famous speeches and in Tennessee they swore Elvis was the first to utter this phrase. My current home state of Indiana has competing myths - David Letterman, James Dean, John Mellencamp.
There is another declaration that seems to have a questionable origin. This one has to do with church goers and their love of good food. Growing up with a stepfather who was a Baptist minister I experienced a great many pitch-ins, pot lucks, dinners on the grounds, and prayer breakfasts. “There’s one thing for sure about Baptists, we really love to eat.”
As a young boy, I took this at face value, thinking that the our particular branch of the church had some sort of special deal with the Lord so that our food tasted better. I had no idea that while we were devouring our deviled eggs, the Catholics were feasting at their fish fries, the Quakers were chowing down on chicken and noodles, and the Lutherans were devouring Jell-O salads. As I did some denomination hoping over the next few decades, I got to taste-test for myself. Along the way I’ve befriended several folks outside the Christian faith and it seems that the folks at the Synagogues and Mosques are quite fond of food as well.
There is something special about communal meals regardless of the name on the sign outside the house of worship - sharing faith and food. At times, eating together is a sacred ritual and at other times it is just a chance to spend time with good friends. When people leave a church, for one reason or another, or when a church closes its doors, the most precious memories are more likely to be of breaking bread in fellowship hall than of hymns and sermons in the sanctuary.
In my own community, a few people are still around who once attended a little country church a few miles outside of town. This church had some great food traditions. Many years ago, membership had dwindled to such low numbers that they merged with an in-town church of the same denomination. Although some of county church’s traditions were incorporated into the city church, others were lost in the transition.
One memorable annual event at the country church was the Groundhog Day Dinner featuring Groundhog Loaf. This wasn’t the frugal use of road kill, but rather a clever play-on-words. The church had several hog farmers in the congregation and someone came up with the idea of serving Ground-hog loaf, aka Hamloaf. On each Groundhog Day, members and guests would get together to eat, and talk, no doubt, about whether or not Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow.
After many, many years, the good folks at the city church decided to resurrect the county church’s tradition of hosting a Groundhog Day Dinner. There may not be any significant theological implications to the Groundhog Day Dinner but it certainly offers a great opportunity for food, fellowship, and to be a part of tradition thought to be long gone.
I hope your own congregation has its food traditions. If not, maybe its up to you to start one. With Groundhog Day 2008 about three weeks away (Feb 2nd), that gives you just enough time to get it all organized! To get you started, here’s a recipe for Groundhog Loaf.
Glazed Groundhog Loaf (for 50)
6 pounds ground ham (your butcher can grind this for you)
6 pounds ground pork
1 quart milk
12 eggs, beaten
1 pound bread crumbs
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
1-1/2 pound brown sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 cup cider vinegar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. The easiest way to mix this is with an industrial mixer. If that is not available, a big bowl and clean hands (and arms) is your best bet. Combine the pork, ham, egg, milk, bread crumbs, garlic powder, and pepper until it is all incorporated together. Do not over mix. Divide the mixture into four equal parts and form loaves. Place the loaves into a 12 x 20 x 4 baking pan that has been coated with nonstick cooking spray. Place in the 350 degree oven and bake for 1-1/2 to 3 hours. During the last 30 minutes of baking, remove from the oven, cover with glaze and return to the oven for the last 30 minutes. To prepare the glaze, combine the brown sugar, mustard, and vinegar. This recipe serves 50 with 5 ounce servings.