Three generations of the same family — from left, Bethea Smith, her 16-year-old daughter Kirby Smith, and her mother, Beth Jones — decorate cakes and cookies Monday in preparation for the annual St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Women’s May Luncheon set for Thursday, May 8. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
April 30, 2014 10:51:47 AM
If you ask longtime Columbians to list some local rites of spring, chances are you'll hear mention of the St. Paul's Episcopal Church May Luncheon. The event, after all, has its roots in the 1800s. Except for a brief period during World War II when supplies were scarce, church members have faithfully served a chicken salad (and now barbecue, too) feast for the community each and every May.
The Episcopal Church Women fundraiser takes place this year on Thursday, May 8, at St. Paul's Parish Hall, located at 318 College St. in downtown Columbus. The dine-in luncheon is 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. Takeout orders may be picked up from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. An accompanying bake sale is 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
For many congregation members, the longstanding tradition -- previously known as the Eight O' May luncheon -- is a family ritual.
Beth Jones married in February 1961 and, as a young bride in the congregation, was quickly recruited by St. Paul's luncheon organizers into the ranks of volunteers who cook hens, chop celery, boil eggs, cook salad dressing, set tables, plate meals -- and any number of other tasks involved in making the day a success.
In the 53 years since, she has served in practically every capacity. This year she will create floral arrangements, among other things.
It's all part of a legacy, one might say, handed down from generation to generation. For Jones, that means the pleasure of watching her own daughter, Bethea Smith, and now her granddaughter, Kirby Smith, taking part as well.
Coming of age
"I guess my earliest memories of the luncheon are of being at the church watching my mother working," said Bethea Smith. When she was old enough, Bethea was assigned to the takeout team, and the rest is history. Like her mother, she has since helped in many capacities. As president today of Quality Products school supply company, Smith has a demanding job -- but will still prepare 15 cups of cooked and chopped chicken for the made-from-scratch chicken salad. Everyone at St. Paul's pitches in for this annual red letter day.
"Even though you work, you're going to get something to do," said Jones. "They try to include everybody -- women, men and teenagers."
One of those teens is 16-year-old Kirby, who helps make cakes and other treats for the bake sale. It's a popular feature of the luncheon, a source of sweets and savories that tend to disappear quickly. Kirby, a junior at Heritage Academy, also bakes cookies for the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen.
"She knows she's following in the footsteps," said Smith. "It's fun that the three of us get to share the experience -- exciting that my mother, my daughter and I are helping with it."
The luncheon is much more than a delicious occasion and fellowship. It allows the Episcopal Church Women to help Loaves and Fishes, Habitat for Humanity and HEARTS After School Tutoring in the community. In the diocese, it helps support State ECW, Honduras Medical Mission, Congregations for Children and Prison Ministry, as well as the world Episcopal Relief and Development mission.
Karen Frye is St. Paul's current ECW president and has her own luncheon memories.
"I learned early on that apparently I never learned the proper way to clean and chop celery," Frye began. "After a luncheon one year, we were all sitting down to eat and someone asked how long does it take to cut seven bunches of celery. Beth Jones and I answered at the same time. My answer was two to three hours; Beth's was seven hours. Needless to say, I was not doing something right!"
Last year, the kitchen crew inexplicably ran low on deviled eggs. Frye remembers the ensuing panic. The preliminary egg math had been done, and no one could fathom how the supply of prepared eggs dwindled so fast.
"Within five minutes of the luncheon starting, the worry sets in that we will not have enough food anyway," said Frye. As the event was winding down, "someone went looking in the refrigerator for something and, lo and behold, there were six pizza boxes full of deviled eggs. If Jesus can feed 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish, he can make deviled eggs appear, too," Frye said.
With so many church families, so many volunteers, taking part in the traditional luncheon for well more than a century, there are enough stories to fill more than a few books. They will continue to accumulate, because thanks to those who make it a rite of spring to attend the gracious dine-in luncheon -- or support it by calling in takeout orders -- the event sees no end in sight.
Chicken salad plates include chicken salad, deviled eggs, potato chips, crackers, sweet pickles and dessert. Barbecue plates include smoked pork barbecue (thanks to Tom Wolford and his crew of skilled cooks), potato salad, deviled eggs, potato chips, roll, dill pickles and dessert.
The dine-in luncheon is $10, at the door.
To place takeout orders, at a cost of $8 each, email orders by 9:30 a.m. May 8 to [email protected] Include name, time of pickup, number and type (chicken salad or barbecue) plates desired, and a contact phone number.
To place takeout orders by phone, call 662-240-0187 or 662-328-6673 May 6 or 7, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., or May 8 from 8-10 a.m. Takeout orders may be picked up from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.