Finding feasts in new places

June 24th, 2022

As someone who had only lived outside of one county for a three-month stint for the first 30 years of my life, I had no idea how disorienting of an experience relocating can be. The night before our family’s first ever move, I stayed up until 4:00 a.m. loading a big moving truck with all the possessions that our household of five had accumulated to that point.

On the trip down, literally down from 2100 feet above sea level to 100 feet above, I thought of the pleasant realities that awaited in the new place. No more mowing on the side of hills with the fear of falling off! A church that will call me “pastor!” Actually, those are the only two pleasant thoughts that I can remember. Outside of the excitement of finally being able to live into God’s call in my life and mowing on flat land, the rest of my emotions were wrapped up in nervousness.

The season leading up to our first move as a family had been a tough one for several reasons.  Now, here we were with a 7-year-old, a 21-month-old, and a 6-month-old, driving away from everything and everyone that we knew, all the support we had for our family.

As the moving truck lurched onward to the new place, everything that appeared on the other side of the windshield became more and more foreign with every passing mile and every foot in elevation.

A theme in Kathleen Stewart’s ethnographic study of Appalachia is the occasionally overwhelming foreignness of that place to one who is from somewhere other than there.[1] Let those who itinerate say Amen! When we relocate to a new place, we are challenged by unfamiliar roads—which ones will take me where I need to go? Which ones will I rarely need to use?—and the need to find the essential places quickly—where is the school? Which Walmart is closest?  

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Matters of location are not the only disorientation we experience upon arrival. Our senses also experience a period of disorientation and adjustment. What is that smell that permeates the air everywhere we go? Often, the dominant smell of a place will reveal what makes the world go round in that locale. And along with identifying the new scents of home, food can be another way to manage feeling overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar. Because foodways and table practices are vital parts of placemaking in a new, foreign home, then I wholeheartedly advocate eating until that sensation of being overwhelmed passes! Getting to know the local cuisine and the favorite food haunts can be a powerful and simple way to become rooted more quickly.

The sheer number of meals we received on that first day in our new home was also an overwhelming expression of love and support to us. It was a week’s worth of supper (or “dinner,” if you prefer to call it that). Whatever it is called in the place where you are, that is what it is, and we newcomers would do well to learn the vernacular. Many of the foods were familiar; others, not so much, though no less delicious.

Shortly after we arrived in our much more moderately level homeplace, while the moving truck was unloaded by a team of soon-to-be friends and family, I had my first worship planning meeting with our church organist/worship leader. The meeting took place by our new mailbox. She inquired as to whether we would share Holy Communion together on that first Sunday. “Of course,” I replied. After all, I was excited about the “being a pastor” part. Her response was, “Oh, you are brave.” Apparently, my beloved friend felt that going to the table together was an unexpected move for the new leader. I suspect her reluctance was born out of a genuine concern that the new first-time pastor had enough on his plate in this new, foreign place. The cause for her perceived genuine reluctance, was also the cause for my eagerness to go the table. We did share in the holy meal that Sunday, and we continued to do so for 10 more years. As time progressed, and as we came to know and appreciate one another more and more, the bread became more filling and the fruit of the vine became sweeter.

Following the first worship service in the new place, after going to the table together, we proceeded to the back of the church for a “Welcome Luncheon” in the fellowship hall. There, we encountered a vast array of many different edible items—again some familiar, while others not so much. It is here that I encountered “chicken pastry” for the first time. Chicken pastry is a Southern comfort food made from shredded chicken, chicken base, salt, ground black pepper, and thin strips of “pastry” (a fair amount of butter added is good, too). In my previous homeplace, we would call it "chicken and dumplings." No matter what you call it where you are, it's delicious.

As I encountered the goodness that is chicken pastry for the first time, Doris approached me with a platter full of hot dogs. Some of the hot dogs are bright red in color, while others were a more familiar (at that time) brownish color. “We bought some other hot dogs because we didn’t know if y’all liked red hot dogs or not,” Doris said. I suppose the pork processers could make them any color they wanted to, and for some reason, that characteristic red aesthetic worked well in that place.  

Although I’m not exactly a fan of various animal parts being combined into an edible form dyed a particular color, I did come to accept that in fact, the red ones are better than the brown ones that Oscar makes. Still, from time to time I would find myself sneaking through the grocery store with a pack of brown ones, or even some brats. Maybe some preachers in rural places sneak to out-of-town markets to buy craft beer, bourbon, or fancy wine—other go out to buy brown hot dogs.

In my first full week of homemaking following that first Sunday, an ambassador of the church and community named L.S. took me on a tour. We meandered our way through the church directory and through the various back roads and intersections that comprise the part of the county we were settling in. We drove past each home in the zip code that the people of the church “stayed at.” You see, in the vernacular of this place I came to learn that one does not live at a house, they stay at a house. Living happens throughout the community, the home is where you stay.

At the conclusion of our journey, L.S. asked me if I had ever experienced traditional southern soul food cooked by a Vietnamese woman. The answer for me was clearly “no.” L.S. remarked as we prepared to enter Ms. Nhut’s café, “Well, this is where the working people eat.”  Translation: this is where the best, hearty food can be found. Ms. Nhut and her café became a dietary staple for the next decade. I know of no better food anywhere. Ms. Nhut became a beloved friend, as did many of the people who ate their weekly, too. When the time came for our family to announce we were being appointed elsewhere, it was Ms. Nhut and a host of other café regulars who made sure we did not pay for a meal for over 2 months prior to our departure. For more on Nhut’s Café and her story, please see this specials from early 2022 from a Raleigh, NC news outlet here.

You want to know where to start with a new place: watch where the service pickup trucks park at lunchtime. Become a regular at that place, and sample everything on the menu while you're there. Becoming a regular is a worthwhile thing for the placemaking pastor to do. Your taste buds will be grateful, and your relationships will become meaningful.


[1] Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).


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