Sunday, November 04, 2007


I'm one of those guys who doesn't gas up until he's running on fumes. I've got some friends who comment that they've never driven anywhere with me when the fuel light wasn't on and one who recalls literally coasting 26 miles down a twisting cliffside road through the middle of nowhere in Australia to reach the only petrol station within a day's drive.

We made it. I always do. Not sure if it's just luck or an innate ability to calculate distance to fuel ratios, but I haven't been stranded yet.

This weekend I was shooting way North of Toronto. After wrapping the crew and packing the truck, I set out on the long drive home just before sunset, soon realizing I was low on gas and also starving since I'd worked through lunch.

I'd just rolled past the last service area for the next 50 miles, because like all highway service areas these days, it was basically a McDonald's franchise with pumps and I wasn't doing that to myself.

There was a turn-off ahead for a small town a half dozen clicks from the highway so I figured I'd find gas and maybe a nicer place to eat there. The town was small and the only eatery I'd seen, the coffee shop opposite the gas station, was closed. I filled up and asked the kid at the cash if there was a restaurant open nearby. He shook his head, "Everybody's closed. They're all down at the Fall Supper."

It was a term I hadn't heard in years. But I asked directions and the kid gave them to me. He even had a couple of tickets left and sold me one. $10 -- for the best meal any former country boy can have.

The Fall Supper is a North American farm tradition that goes back at least a couple of hundred years. Before there were official Thanksgivings, every rural community would hold a post harvest feast, an opportunity for those who'd spent the last weeks getting in the crops to relax, catch up with their neighbors and dig in to the best local recipes and home cooking to be found thereabouts.

They reached their peak in the 1950's and were such a cultural fixture in Saskatchewan during my childhood that some dignitary decided that the Queen and Prince Philip should attend one during a Royal visit. There's a famous story of one of the church women picking up the royal plates and saying, "Hang onto your fork, your Majesty, there's pie!"

It's still a major part of the Autumn social calendar all across the Canadian Prairies and through the Midwestern States. But from late September to late November, it isn't hard to find something similar anywhere rural.

The one I found tonight was in the basement of the local United Church, just like most of the ones I'd attended as a kid. Back then the tickets cost a buck, a quarter for anybody over 60 or under 12.

Preparation started early in the day with the local women gathering at the Church kitchen to either create their personal trademark dishes or warm up the foil covered cauldrons of heirloom recipes they'd prepared at home.

The menu might vary from Turkey & Sauerkraut or thick beef sausages if the ethnic makeup were primarily German to Perogies and Roast Pork in a Ukrainian community. But there was always a wide variety of choices and the servings were immense. If you could carry your plate to the table with one hand, you were definitely not getting the full experience.

The diners came from miles around. In a time of bachelor cowboys and hired hands, it wasn't unusual for a pick up truck crammed with guys eager for a real home-cooked meal to travel an hour or more to find the local church having "Supper Night".

That popularity meant there were always multiple "sittings", meaning the enormous meal would be served at least 2-3 times per night.

Kids ate first and you turned up at the church around five, sitting in the pews until somebody came to wave you down to the basement. That wait was always an exquisite agony. Incredible smells drifted up through the floor boards as you debated what kind of pie they might have (my favorite was Rhubarb) and some too-brainy kid would always insist it wasn't a "Fall" supper, it was a "Foul" supper because of all the chickens and turkeys being served.

Meanwhile, you tried to avoid making eye contact with the Minister pacing the aisle, eschewing his dog collar for a more trendy "social evening" turtleneck, because you didn't want him mentioning that he hadn't seen you at Sunday school for a while.

The Organist was usually there too, playing something more up-tempo than hymns. We figured it was what she played down in Swift Current at the hotel. There was always an ad in the Saturday paper showing her "At the Hammond for Happy Hour".

Y'know, I'll bet there's a story in that woman's double life; playing "Begin the Beguine" amid swirling cigarette smoke over the clink of "Hi-Ball" glasses until midnight, then driving all night to appear scrubbed and prim as she pumped out "Bringing in the Sheaves" at the 8:00 a.m. service.

But I digress...

Eventually somebody took your ticket and ushered you down to the basement and its waiting tables. You waved to your mom and loaded up your plate with Turkey and Goose and one of Mrs. Hartman's amazing Moose sausages. Then your aunt heaped mashed potatoes and gravy on one side of your dish while the nice lady from the farm with the big St. Bernard ladled on peas and carrots fresh from her garden.

You found a seat at a table with big bowls of still steaming rolls and pitchers of water, apple juice and cherry Kool-aid. The first sitting was always noisy as hell. Imagine a giant Thanksgiving dinner made up of nothing but kids' tables.

Once the amazing meal had been put away, the church ladies came around to clear the plates and serve dessert. It was always a big slab of homemade pie with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and a couple of sugar cookies on the side. You could also pretend to be grown up and have tea.

Overhead, you could hear the second sitting arriving and you knew the pre-dinner aroma torture they were undergoing and that they wouldn't be happy if you dawdled. The ladies were always anxious to move you out too -- for reasons I didn't understand until I was old enough to be part of the second or the even more mystical "third" sitting.

I doubt that anthropologists or sociologists study Fall Suppers. But they should, because there's a dynamic going on that's really intriguing.

For as the diners got older, the women in the kitchen got -- younger.

The second sitting was primarily the local menfolk and seniors. Farmers finished with their evening chores, store clerks, grain agents and the fellas from the railroad. Their wives and sweethearts were the cooks and servers, but instead of sitting down with the kids, tonight they were eating with all their friends.

It was Christmas dinner without being worried if Uncle Al would drink too much or crazy old Aunt Margaret would call a curse down on the Catholics during grace. The gaiety of the kids tables now translated to adults free of their social norm and in an atmosphere where a guy could openly flirt with the woman next door because she just made such great scalloped potatoes and a lonely telephone operator could draw an appreciative smile from a gentleman farmer with her flaky pastry.

It wasn't anything that threatened to turn into a Little Swingers Club on the Prairie, but it was a huge change from their ordered days and proscribed social options. Most of the women ate their meals when the men had desert and coffee, harvesting their full measure of kudoes and compliments.

But soon the restless shuffling upstairs moved the men and the seniors out. The hired hands were hungry.

And this is where it got interesting.

Because when the fresh scrubbed cowboys and single farmers in their best shirts made their way down the stairs, most of the married cooks busied themselves washing up the now empty pots and casserole dishes as the single women of the town did the serving and the recommending of each others candied yams and pickled beets.

For the cowboys weren't just hungry for a good meal and this was still a time when a woman got as far with her skills in the kitchen as her looks. In an almost tribal way, the older women were helping their eligible daughters and the handsome cowboys on the path to some smouldering glances around the old corral.

There was only one sitting tonight. But as the women of the church heaped my plate with slabs of roast turkey, ribs, baked squash and barely braised spinach, I could see them nudging a pretty young server into the path of raw-boned and good looking guy who clearly wasn't used to wearing a suit.

She said he should try the pumpkin pie. He asked if it was hers. She almost blushed as she nodded and her mom cut an extra thick slice and gave the Redi-Whip container a good shake. The woman serving me smiled knowingly. I did too.

You just don't get this kind of stuff at McDonald's.


wcdixon said...

Fall suppers are 'awesome'... seriously.

Anonymous said...

I was searching the net for descriptions of the famous "fall suppers".Well written and portrayed accurately I was taken 'out to supper"! Thx