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Yet beyond the great recipes for dishes such as Bahamian Seafood Cobbler, Soulful Chicken Stir-Fry, Whipping Cream Biscuits, and Mama Georgia’s Sweet Potato Pie lies a rich and textured account of how the church incorporates the creation and enjoyment of food and the care of the physical body into its love for and devotion to God and humankind. Brimming with updated, healthy renditions of favorite old dishes, Food for the Soul is also illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs.
Woven through the book are stories associated with the recipes that are full of life -- humorous, moving, joyful. From a churchgoer who started making spicy chili in the sixties as the South Bronx burned (Chef J’s 5-Alarm South Bronx Chili) to another who still re-creates the one-pot dinner that was the only meat dish her large and poor family could afford each week (Booba’s Saturday Night Special One-Pot Meal), these anecdotes and recipes come from the heart and provide deep sustenance to the body and soul.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church is the second oldest African American church in the United States and will celebrate its two hundredth anniversary in 2008. Abyssinian has members from Kenya, Jamaica, the United States, Ireland, Brazil, the Cameroon, Uganda, Ghana, the Bahamas, Cuba, Honduras, Panama, England, Egypt, South Africa, Grenada, Trinidad, Holland, Japan, and Nigeria.
The Abyssinian Kitchen and Table
Food has been an important part of the Abyssinian Baptist Church since its founding in 1808. In the 1920s, when the church moved from downtown Manhattan to its current home in Harlem, women from the church served home-cooked meals to the men who cleared the land for construction. When the building was completed in 1923 it was the largest Protestant church in the world. Today food plays a significant part in many church events, but to understand the role food has played in the church, it is first necessary to understand the evolution of the food ministry at Abyssinian.
Six years after the church moved into its Harlem home, the stock market crashed, and the hardships that followed the nationwide economic collapse were magnified in neighborhoods like Harlem, which by the late 1920s had almost 200,000 people of African descent.
Reverend Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. once said that when people are hungry they will pray. As the pastor who navigated Abyssinian through the rough waters of the Great Depression, it was undoubtedly those prayers that inspired him to meet the needs of the people. He gave his twenty-four-year-old son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a $1,000 gift to start a free food kitchen and together they started it in the church gymnasium. Area merchants donated food and church volunteers prepared meals for a thousand people a day.
Church member Virginia Morgan recalls that although the Depression was raging outside, "when you came in the church you wouldn't know it at all because the Spirit was there. Once you walked in you could feel it." Feisty, chatty, and still spry at ninety years young, Miss Virginia became a member of Abyssinian the same year the new building was erected, and unless the weather is bad you'll still find her at service every Sunday and at prayer meeting each Wednesday. Miss Virginia is the younger sister of the legendary Beatrice Talley, whom she still affectionately calls Miss Talley. Of all the great cooks who have passed through Abyssinian's kitchen, Beatrice Talley is the one for whom the church fellowship hall is named.
Of Miss Virginia's six sisters, four of them, including Virginia and Beatrice, migrated to Harlem from Macon, North Carolina, and became members of Abyssinian. Miss Virginia says that her whole family could cook because they were brought up to cook. She and her sisters learned by watching their mother, who baked the communion bread for the First Baptist Church in Macon from scratch. Miss Virginia's mother would take a yeast cake and soak it in a little milk and water. She got her flour ready by sprinkling it with a dash of salt. "Once the yeast cake was ready she would mix it with the flour in a big bowl with butter or oil--either one would do just fine. She'd get her hands clean--real clean. Then she'd get in that bowl, and beat it up. Beat it up into a nice ball, and roll it out real flat." She then took a cutter and delicately sectioned the dough into tiny squares, marking each one with a cross. Because she didn't cut the dough all the way through, after it was baked it could be broken up easily and given to the people during the communion service. Beatrice Talley brought this homespun recipe to Harlem and used it to make her rolls in the Abyssinian kitchen. The only difference was that she would let the dough rise so that her rolls would turn out both fluffy and delicious.
Reverend Powell Sr. approached Beatrice Talley about taking over the Abyssinian kitchen. Miss Virginia's eyes light up when she recalls that Reverend Powell wasn't the only person who recognized that her sister knew her way around a kitchen. "Everybody knew she could cook. No questions asked. And whenever she cooked it wouldn't be too long before all the food was gone." Miss Virginia describes a typical Sunday: "We'd get to the church at six a.m. and have breakfast ready by seven or seven thirty. Miss Talley cooked, and I served. I would run around and get the dining room all fixed up. I love flowers, so every table had lots of flowers. I would set the tablecloths while Miss Talley baked the bread. People came in special to have breakfast, but they mostly liked her hot rolls with coffee. Reverend Powell and his family used to live in an apartment upstairs above the church, so we'd send his food up on a tray. He would come down mostly for dinner after church. After service he'd stand at the door of the Fellowship Hall and greet the people. Everybody loved talking to him, you know, he's the pastor. Friendliness was one of his better qualities, so he wouldn't shoo you off. One thing about him, he made everybody feel welcome. That was the good part. Everybody was like family."
The dinner menu seldom changed, but each week Miss Talley would have choices: "Pretty brown fried chicken, deep fat to fry it because that makes a big difference. Nice baked ham, some good string beans or greens, potato salad or baked potato." A weekly staple was tossed salad made of crisp iceberg lettuce, garden fresh tomatoes, and thinly sliced cucumbers. "Miss Talley left the skin on the cucumbers to give the salad a little color, and she made her own dressing out of mayonnaise, white vinegar, and oil." Dessert was usually an apple or peach cobbler baked from scratch.
"One thing about cooking, you have to study the people to see what they like. People like chicken, and they like string beans. But they really liked those beans the way Miss Talley cooked them. First she would boil a ham for half an hour with onions, green peppers, and whole garlic cloves to bring out the flavor. After she put that ham in the oven to brown she would soak the beans in the juice. That's what made them taste so good. Then she'd take that ham and carve it into beautiful slices. Sometimes instead of having taters she'd have macaroni and cheese. She'd use spaghetti noodles instead of elbow noodles to make it a little bit different." Miss Virginia smiles slyly before continuing. "I had my own tricks, but I'm not going to share them with you."
This was before the days of ranges and refrigerators. "We loved to cook so much, and we kept that kitchen clean because we had to get around it. We had a wood and coal burning stove and an icebox. I remember that meal tickets were fifty cents for breakfast, and dinner was a dollar and a half. If you wanted to take your food out it was a little bit more because we had to give you a paper plate. Once you got your ticket, you could either stand at the door to the kitchen to be served for takeout, or sit down if you wanted me to wait on you. I would give you water and a napkin and ask you what you wanted. We usually had a special table set up for those who finished eating and just wanted to sit there and talk. It's good for the older people because if they don't have meals at the church, what they got to do but sit up in the house? Instead they can come here, meet the family, and talk."
Beatrice Talley never gave too much thought to when she would retire. One Wednesday night at prayer meeting she raised her hands in the service "like she knew she was going to pass away from here." Miss Virginia still gets misty-eyed when she remembers that fateful night. Miss Talley never made it back to the kitchen. It was certainly the end of an era. But just as Moses handed the mantle of leadership over to someone whom God had been preparing for the task, after Beatrice Talley's passing Deacon Allen Mintz was already writing another page in the history of the Abyssinian kitchen.
C. Vernon Mason fondly remembers that Deacon Mintz was "famous for the aroma of the bread he baked on Sunday mornings. Sometimes it would be difficult to concentrate on what was going on in the service because that aroma would be coming up from the kitchen." Mason, who proudly donned an apron and volunteered as a food server in the kitchen, was a high-profile attorney who worked on several cases that garnered national attention. "One of the wonderful things about Abyssinian is that when you're at the church, your job is not important. You'll have ushers who are CEOs of their companies and choir members who are partners in law firms. Part of what we got from the leadership and preaching of [former pastor] Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, and Dr. Butts, and the elders and other leaders in the church was that it really didn't matter what our careers were because everyone is called to serve. The joy of wearing an apron and working in the kitchen was not just practicing the lessons we were taught, but in helping new members see what service meant."
"Fellowship and food have always been synonymous here at Abyssinian. This tradition has been in place since 1808. We don't call the place where the food is served the Fellowship Hall for nothing. Deacon Mintz embodied this tradition. You couldn't find a better baker, and his rolls were superior to any you could buy from a bakery. But he was a very quiet, humble person. He was just absolutely incredible. Highly regarded, and well respected. People loved him. I had the privilege of serving with him in the kitchen and on the deacon board. When I talk about Deacon Mintz's rolls, the food is just one part of it. What I think people had such tremendous respect for is that over those years this brother came in, went out, and bought all of those ingredients, and did it voluntarily. What was lifted up was the service, and the food that he cooked was the result of that service. As delicious as those rolls were, they were a symbol of his love for his church family. His ministry was within his service, and it was that way with all of us. It may be while you're in the Fellowship Hall serving, or having food that you're providing a listening ear to somebody who needs to talk. You don't have to fix the problem. You may not even have a solution, but you might be the only person who listened to them all week. Our time in the Fellowship Hall was never limited to just the consumption of food. You were taught a number of lessons; you could counsel or be counseled. You might see somebody you hadn't seen in a number of years, or renew an old acquaintance. And then you had visitors and new members who were meeting people from Abyssinian for the first time. Certainly we ate Deacon Mintz's cooking because our bodies needed nourishing, but we had something else that needed nourishing too--our spirits. That's what I associate with the food fellowship that goes on in the Abyssinian kitchen."
Martha Hatcher already had a reputation as a great cook before she joined Abyssinian. In addition to working as a dietician for the New York City Board of Education for twenty-five years, she ran a catering business that serviced an upscale downtown clientele for two decades and was a caterer for Bon Apetit's grand opening in the early '70s. "Even though my husband was a member of Abyssinian, I didn't start coming here until he was ordained a deacon in 1978. Mr. Mintz was in charge of the kitchen at that time, and little by little I melted into the pot. After Deacon Mintz passed in 1996 I took over."
Sunday breakfast and dinner were not the only meals that were prepared in the Abyssinian kitchen. There were events such as the Ida Belle Newman Luncheon for members over seventy, the Deacon, Deaconess, Trustee Sermon, and the Annual Women's Day Celebration, which included a fish fry on Friday and brunch on Saturday.
While Mrs. Hatcher was running the Abyssinian kitchen, the New York Times sought her out when they did their cookbook. The Times included her recipe
for string beans, even though, Hatcher says, "they didn't get it right. They said you cook the beans for three or four hours, but you only need to cook them for
fifteen or twenty minutes. If you cooked them for three or four hours they'd be pureed."
Hatcher's attention to detail is one reason why her food has always stood out. "See, I'm very, very particular about the way I want things done. I cook most foods the way I like to have them taste if I'm eating. When people know that I'm cooking they will say that Martha is cooking, or Mrs. Hatcher is cooking, so it's going to be good. I guess it's the method and the seasonings that I use that will make it a little bit different from someone else. And the way you set up your food and display it on your serving dishes is important too. Time management has an awful lot to do with it because you want the food cooked at the right time so that it doesn't over-set. When you pace your cooking with the order of the event, then a dish that's supposed to be served cold will be cold, and something that's supposed to be hot will be hot.
"I always used fresh ingredients. You could buy peeled potatoes or peeled carrots, but I would peel them myself. I would make three or four hundred muffins a week. The cornbread, all the cakes and pies, everything I did from scratch. To give you an example of how particular I am, most people don't take the bone out when they make salmon croquettes. They leave the black skin on the meat. I clean the salmon completely when it comes out of the can. I remember when I made salmon croquettes for a Women's Day breakfast, and Congressman Charles Rangel came. He said that those were the best salmon croquettes that he'd ever tasted, and he took some home to his wife. So it's little things like that, the compliments you get, that serve as your feedback. Then you know that you've made a difference in someone else's palate."
Other luminaries who had the pleasure of feasting on Martha Hatcher's delicacies when they visited Abyssinian were singer Leontyne Price, musician Wynton Marsalis, and Zubin Mehta of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Hatcher prepared the food for the installation service for Reverend Butts when he took over as senior pastor after Dr. Proctor's retirement in 1989. She used her forty-five years of food service experience to upgrade the kitchen at Abyssinian into the commercial-grade facility that it is today.
Mrs. Hatcher ran the kitchen off and on for eleven years, until the mid 1990s.
Excerpted from Food for the Soul by Abyssinian Baptist Church Excerpted by permission.
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