I am a Methodist because my grandfather owned a pair of shoes. True story. Thomas St. John was the oldest of seven brothers who grew up in the small town of Brooksville, Mississippi around the turn of the previous century. His father was Methodist, and his mother— my great-grandmother— was Baptist. The Methodist church in Brooksville was a mile from their home on the other side of the small two-block stretch they called downtown. The Baptist church was in the same block as their home, two houses down.
The five youngest St. John boys spent the summers of the late 1800s and early 1900s barefoot. They could easily walk through the neighbors’ grass to attend the Baptist church with my great grandmother. The two older boys had the newest Sunday shoes and could walk down the small streets and sidewalks to the Methodist church.
Several months ago, we started a Sunday buffet at our flagship restaurant, The Purple Parrot. Yesterday, as I was working the dining room, I was struck with memories from my childhood and the Sunday buffets of my youth.
(Author’s Note: The following story was published in the book “A Southern Palate by Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters” Different Drummer Press 2002)
When I was a child, my family ate three Sunday lunches a month at my grandmother’s house. On the fourth Sunday we ate at the Hattiesburg Country Club. The most memorable part of eating Sunday lunch at The Country Club was not the food, but the drive there.
Set just outside the city limits in a pristine setting of tall pines and flowering azaleas, the country club was the perfect destination for Sunday lunch. The only thing that marred the perfection of the occasion was the church traffic one encountered on the way. Sunday lunch at the country club was always a race to beat the Baptists to the buffet.
As soon as the organist hit the last note of the final hymn at Main Street United Methodist Church, my mother would scoop my brother and me up and say, “Let’s go boys, we’ve got to get to the club before the Baptists let out.”
I could detect movement out of the corner of my eye, as our choir was midway through the doxology. I didn’t dare turn around, but I knew what it was— three or four other families were inching their way toward the door, trying to sneak out of church early to beat the Baptists to the buffet. Moments later, the church doors would fly open and hundreds of hungry Methodists would rush down the steps and race out to Main Street as if there was a fire in the sanctuary.
In those days, Main Street United Methodist Church was flanked on three sides by Hattiesburg’s largest Baptist churches; First Baptist to the south, Temple Baptist to the west and Main Street Baptist to the north. It took great planning to plot the route to the Club that would offer the least Baptist resistance.
I used to picture my mother as the female version of Gen. George S. Patton, pulling a top-secret map from her purse, spreading it on top of the old yellow Plymouth while she calculated the best route.
In my mind’s eye, I can see my mom in the church parking lot, using methods of post-worship strategy and tactical precision not seen since Patton planned his invasion of France. “We’ll get through the Baptists’ west flank boys, but we’re going to have to do the Super-Secret-7th-Street-Cut-Off-Maneuver!”
The Baptists might have had strength in numbers, but we Methodists could be very determined and quite clever when it came to eating.
At my church, we even began our morning service five minutes earlier than other churches. We still do, 10:55 a.m., sharp. I assumed we started early because, as Methodists, we just couldn’t wait to begin to worship. I came to believe later that it might have been the idea of one of the elders in our church who had missed that last piece of white meat on the buffet one too many times. “Let’s move that start time up five minutes preacher, I am withering away to nothing but skin and bone.”
I had Baptist friends who began to get antsy if the preacher’s traditional post-sermon invitation went on too long. A good Sunday for the Baptist preacher, with a lot of converts coming down to the alter to be saved, also meant getting out late and being at the back of the buffet line with the last pick on all of the desserts.
As a kid, I heard a rumor that there was a Baptist gentleman who, after singing the 37th consecutive chorus of Just As I Am, made a mad dash out of the sanctuary with his kids in tow, yelling half-crazed at the top of his lungs, “Those Methodists are going to eat all of the roast beef!” He and his family are Episcopalians now.
Nowadays, all of Hattiesburg’s biggest Baptist churches have moved out west with the gated communities and shopping centers. Unfortunately, there is no longer a traffic problem in downtown Hattiesburg on Sundays. But, for old times’ sake, I would like to get my mom behind the wheel just one more time and have her weave in and out of that Baptist traffic on our wild Sunday Buffet Dash.
Methodists on their way to the lunch, just like Patton on his way to the Seine.