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Ancestral Cooking Forum

The Church Dinner: A Harlem Tradition

Published: August 26, 1981


PRECISELY at 11 A.M., Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C major fills the stilled church. The ushers are at their posts, their white suits a dramatic contrast to the maroon-robed choir waiting for the start of the processional. Sunday morning worship service at Harlem's Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, founded in 1796, the oldest organized black church in New York City, has begun.

In the lower-level kitchen, Roland Baker, his white shirt and trousers spotless despite the fact that he wears no apron, is sauteeing rice before putting it in the oven. Mr. Baker, who was born in Atlanta, has been a professional cook for 55 years. For more than 40 of those years he has cooked Sunday dinner at Mother Zion, at 140 West 137th Street. Moving with the agility of a man half his age, he is a study in kitchen choreography, stirring the cornbread mix, slicing, chopping, basting, tasting, checking on everything.

Mr. Baker, who is 69 years old, represents a link in an unbroken tradition as old as the black church itself, a tradition that is observed by the congregations in most of Harlem's 350 churches: the communal Sunday dinner. The Rev. Calvin Butts, executive minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church, a block north of Mother Zion, says that the tradition ''has deep biblical as well as social and cultural meaning.''

''It goes back to the early days of the church, back to slavery,'' he says. ''It has to do with communion. Communion was a meal, a feast of love. It is a kind of extension of our Africanness.''

It also has much to do with the great northward migrations of Southern blacks. More than half a century ago, the sociologist Richard R. Wright wrote, ''Here strangers come and are introduced and find ready welcome. In a large city where men are busy and time is valuable, the incoming immigrant from the South would be at a great loss had he not the church to which to go, at first, at least.''

At shortly after 11:30 on a recent Sunday, Hoover Irvin, Mother Zion's kitchen helper, has begun carting huge pans of food to the steam table in the dining room. Dabney Montgomery, a Selma, Ala., native, punctuates the quiet. A kind of unofficial historian of the church, Mr. Montgomery talks of Sojourner Truth, a leader of the abolitionist movement, who, he says, changed her name ''right here in this church.''

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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