Dinner on the grounds (always with an “s”) is a Methodist revival meeting picnic. Among agrarian communities, the revival is held in August before harvesting begins in earnest. Throughout the United States, there are many geographic variations, but Southerners seem to hold sway, scheduling the meeting for “lay-by time,” sometime between planting and harvesting.
Sometimes these are called Camp Meetings, and they are associated with the advent of Methodism in the U.S. in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century. Camp meetings, however, may be held any time in any season. Besides spiritual regeneration, food is an important element of the meeting. The more of it, the better.
Marietta [Georgia] Campground has been holding August rival meetings since 1837, and with an abundance of food, there has always been a sign of well-being and spiritual ease. In short, a feast, the kind that Marietta native Mrs. Bebe Meaders is fond of saying suggests that some Methodists think the way to heaven is through the stomach.
William Clary’s memories of a small town in Brunswick County, Virginia, date to the 1920-30s. He writes that dinner on the grounds at Wesley’s Chapel followed a regular pattern—the sermon in the morning, followed by dinner on the grounds, followed by another sermon. Tables were set outside in the shade of trees, and each family brought its own picnic. “Our table was famous for at least three things,” Clary remembered, “Aunt Sally’s biscuits, my mother’s cucumber pickles, and coconut pie. The menu was pretty consistent: fried chicken, baked ham, and biscuits. There was corn pudding. If there was anything green, I don’t know what it was; don’t remember cabbage. There was always cocoanut cake as well as pie. The only drink was iced tea, sweet and without lemon. Southerners have never eaten watermelon as dessert; it was chilling in the ice box and was split when we got home from church.”
Edna Lewis’ A Taste of Country Cooking (1976) includes a memory of an African American Revival Sunday Dinner in her hometown Freetown, Virginia in the 1930s. Lewis calls it “Second Sunday” and she remembers that it “always seemed to have been a perfect day, with everyone looking their best, eating and chatting.” Cooking was done by women while the men attended church. Then the men returned home and gathered the family and packed the food, so that it would arrive at the church “piping hot.” (See PicnicWit.com for more of Edna Lewis’ memories.)
Featured Image: Russell Lee. The Blessing at Dinner on the Grounds at the All Day Community Sing. Pie Town, New Mexico (1940). LOC
See: A useful reference is Albert E. Brumley’s All-Day Singin’ and Dinner on the Ground: Traditional Songs & Recipes (Camdenton, MO,1972). Inexplicably, Brumley leaves out the “s” in grounds.