by Joy Salyers
On May 19, my family and I headed up to Person County to the 125th anniversary of Berry’s Grove Baptist Church.
Berry’s Grove is on Berry Road, in what is either Timberlake or Little River, depending on whether you’re trying to mail something there or drive to it. Being raised Baptist, I know that any church celebration is likely to bring some of the best food I’ve had in awhile. I can remember staying with my Aunt Ruth one summer, herself a pastor’s wife, as she made fried biscuits to take to a church supper. When we got there, I just couldn’t believe that a church as small as theirs could have produced such a spread. At a church dinner, it is easy, as my father’s mother used to say, “to eat ’til you like to founder.”
This being a big celebration – not just homecoming, but the 125th anniversary – I had full expectation of stops being pulled out. But as it turned out, the most memorable food moment was right there in the guest speaker’s sermon.
I should say that it was because of the guest speaker that we were in attendance for this event. Dan Dunkel was invited to preach for the anniversary because he had been pastor of the church from 1958 through 1963.
Dan is also my mother’s first cousin. He lived with her family in east Tennessee when she was a small child. Not only because he was her live-in babysitter but also because they have continued to be close through the years, he’s more like a big borther than a cousin to her in many ways.
I had no idea that Dan had ever pastored a church in North Carolina, although he always went where he was called. He often pastored churches that couldn’t give full time support so he also worked in factories and wherever else he could. In fact, the family lived on such a shoestring that it took him a long time to get through his college and seminary schooling; once when they were short of funds, his wife Hazel sold the living room furniture to pay his tuition. I don’t get to see him often, and it’s not every day you get to hear your 93 year-old cousin preach, so we were delighted to be there.
Dan opened his sermon with a great story about a non-North Carolinian’s first encounter with a state food tradition. He tells it best, so I have transcribed the story below. You can also hear him tell it (this excerpt starts around 1:37).
September the first, 1958, the Dunkel family moved into the parsonage at Helena. We left church on Sunday night in Tennessee; I preached the service on Sunday night, we left after church and drove all night. . . . On the road beween Hillsborough and 501, we caught up with the truck that had our furniture on it, so we could take the driver right to the parsonage. We got to the parsonage and started unloading the truck, and there was no power. It was a holiday. Utilities didn’t respond to turning on the power. But Mrs. Clyde Berry knew somebody that knew somebody who could get it done. And so the power got turned on. [laughter]
. . . .We unloaded the rest of the furniture, set up the beds, and we all went to bed. We’d been up all night. We were sleepy. Late that afternoon as we began to stir around, the neighbor next door, Barton Mills over there, came over with a big pot of Brunswick stew. Now this was a new experience for us. Well, we turned on the water at the sink so we would have some water, and we stood there with our mouths hanging open as we watched a stream of yellow mud come out of that faucet. Yellow mud. We looked at each other, but it ran for a little while, the water cleared up, and it was good water.
And we got our dishes, our little bowls, and sat down at the table to eat Brunswick stew for the first time in our lives. And we dished it out, and sat down and had the blessing, and started to eat. We took a spoonful of Brunswick stew, and our eyes widened, and our throats burned.
It seemed like good Mama Barton and her family liked their stew HOT. Hot with spices. This should have been filmed, but it wasn’t. You could have seen us sitting there around the table; we had gotten a glass of water, and this was the process we went through, with the Brunswick stew. We took a spoonful of stew, and a sip of water, a spoonful of stew, and a sip of water. That was our introduction to Brunswick stew.
When we were invited to come over for this service I mentioned to the pastor that I would like — my family were coming with me — and I said I wanted us all to get together on Saturday night and find a restaurant where we could have North Carolina Brunswick stew. Well, we talked about it and talked to Wilma and told her we’d like to plan to do that and maybe they could help us locate a place, and next thing I know it was set up to have Brunswick stew here at the church.So we came last night, enjoyed fellowship with a few of you, and had some of the best stew that — well, you don’t make any better stew than Berry’s Grove stew. [congregation: Amen!] We learned that while we were here.
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After the service we headed over to the fellowship hall, where all my expectations were founded. Three long tables groaned under main dishes and sides, while two more tables at the back were loaded with desserts. Like many well-organized dinners, people had clearly signed up for various items, so I loaded my plate down with multiple versions of just two things. There were at least half a dozen different kinds of deviled eggs (I tried four) and pots and pans of green beans, most obviously home-canned. (My favorite are the ones with lots of shellies, and a little pork.) Dan Dunkel held court at one table while people milled about, drinking sweet tea (you could choose between sweet tea with sugar or sweet tea with Splenda) and reminiscing.
Folks head back for dessert
As we left the church, belts loosened, kids rubbing their eyes, I looked out the window and saw a large bald eagle sitting in the field next to the road. We pulled the car over to watch, and realized there were two of them – a pair of eagles. As we watched them interacting, one soaring aloft and the other perching in a tree, a hawk – who would have looked large next to most any other bird – swooped after the eagles and chased them through the air the way a mockingbird will chase a crow. The four of us sat with our mouths hanging open for awhile; finally we went on home, feeling even more filled up, in ways we couldn’t explain.
Joy M. Salyers is Executive Director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute. She will work for food!