I grew up on a upstate New York dairy farm in the late 1930s and 40s. We attended a small country church which had no space for anything other than worship. Public suppers to make money were held in its members homes.
My mother was president of the women’s organization. We lived in a large rambling farmhouse so at least once or twice a year, our home was the setting for a public chicken and biscuit dinner.
It was a two day affair. The church women came to the house the day before the event. They peeled potatoes and gathered all the necessary pots, dishes and flatware. My father moved a second table from upstairs to the dining room so about 15 people could be seated at a time. He also beheaded a couple of chickens and stripped them of their feathers before they were prepared for cooking. Meanwhile, chickens were meeting a similar fate at other members’ homes.
Early on the big day the chickens were put on the back of the wood fired cookstove to simmer slowly. These chickens were usually old hens which had stopped laying eggs. They required long slow cooking, unlike the young ones that are in our markets today. The church women gathered bringing with them biscuits, pies and cakes prepared at home. The potatoes were put over to boil, jars of homemade pickles opened, cabbage shredded for salad, homemade bread sliced and vegetables, which varied with the season, were prepared.
By early afternoon the women’s faces were red from the heat in the kitchen which seemed to be the same temperature as the oven. If it were summer time, kids like myself ran in and out of the house and were shooed from the kitchen. There seven or eight women laughed and worked together.
The supper was advertised from 4:00 to 7:00, but by 3:30 cars began pulling into the yard from nearby villages. The smell of frying chicken permeated the house and yard. Dad was recruited to mash the potatoes which were liberally laced with homemade butter and cream. Gravy bubbled in a pot waiting to be poured over hot biscuits. Two or three women donned fresh aprons and serving began. When the dining room was full, the next guests waited their turn on the front porch in the summer or in the large living room in cool weather. And so it went until all comers had their fill. Finally, the tired women and their farmer husbands, who had finished milking their cows, sat down to eat whatever was left. At seventy-five cents a plate and fifty-five dinners later the church would be forty dollars richer–enough to help pay the pastor and meet other expenses.
For us, as young children, it was a wonderful time to play together in the dusk of the evening. As we matured into early teenagers, we were enlisted as servers and dishdryers.
The next day, the house would be restored to its former self. Mom would need the next several days to recover.

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