Dining out as we think of it today is a relatively new practice for the average Black person. It wasn’t many years ago that dining out for us meant eating at someone else’s house. It was almost always on Sunday, after morning church services. And if you were lucky, you got invited to dinner by Sister Jones, the best cook in the congregation.
There was only one consideration when dining with Sister Jones, she said the longest grace this side of the Mason-Dixon. There you’d be sitting at the table, food steaming in their serving dishes. “Gracious Lord we thank you for this food … We ask dear Lord that you bless those gathered here . . . And bless the hands that labored for it . . . Send us your blessings that we … And remember those who could not be with us today …” On and on she would go until you could hardly stand it. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Deacon Smith, (who always managed to get an invitation) hadn’t punctuated every pause with a “Yes Lord” or an “Amen”. Sister Jones’ grace was church all over again.
It was only after this that all the plates were served and then silence would envelope the table. Each morsel was worth every minute. Dinner with Sister Jones was a lesson in “what is good.”
The menu was standard but never boring. Chicken — fried, fricasseed or roasted. You could also expect a meat entree. Usually baked Virginia ham with pineapple and cherry garnish, or a well seasoned leg of lamb with gravy. Macaroni baked with bubbly toasted cheese, or yams candied on the outside and moist and tender inside. The vegetables ran the gamut from peas and rice, greens (collards, mustards, or turnips) to stringbeans and cabbage. All seasoned to perfection with pieces of pork. You couldn’t have asked for better, but if you had asked for more, there was always plenty. Hot bread — big light biscuits, Parker House rolls, or cornbread rounded out the meal.
The icing on the cake, which no one ever had room for, more often than not, was coconut. Or, if that was not to your liking maybe some deep-dish peach pie, apple cobbler or Brown Betty. Even the most celebrated appetites couldn’t go the distance behind one of these Sunday dinners.
Time out was called, usually between dinner and the confectionary delights. The adults would alternate chit-chat and snoozing while the kids would turn to the comics or tune into the radio. And, when the cycle of eating, talking, snoozing, eating and reading was complete, when the Green Hornet and the Shadow had triumphed over evil, and when all the dishes were done — it was time to return to church.
Just when we moved away from those quiet uncomplicated Sundays, who can say? But we have. We’ve changed. We now do our dining in restaurants, and with more and more frequency. Moreover, the restaurants we’re choosing include international delicacies as well.We’re just as at home with Chicken Kiev as we are with Chicken Fricassee, bouillabaisse instead of fried fish, and croissants now rival biscuits. But what we did not move away from are our expectations of good service, a warm atmosphere, and of course exceptionally good food.
We New Yorkers are luckier than most, because we have so many restaurants to choose from. And when we find one that fulfills our expectations, is it any wonder that we return time and time again? After all, we’ve had dinner with Sister Jones and a lesson in what is “good!”