I thought it was a crazy wish that my dying rural community would someday be revived. But even crazy wishes can come true.
I first wrote this essay back in 2001, and I re-run it today to show the power of a simple wish. At that time, West Fulton, my hometown, was a dying rural community. But it was once a bustling little community, and our annual turkey supper, made entirely from food grown within our town lines, was known far and wide. This Saturday night a group of us will gather at the church hall for the first time in about 20 years, to re-ignite the tradition. If you would like to join us, please click here. This is technically a private event, so it is by reservation only. Seating is limited, and we have only a few seats remaining. We do ask for a $25 donation. If you would like to stay to hear music afterward, by Uncommon Ground, tickets are $10. If you want to come at 8:30 to hear music only, no reservations are required.
Food nourishes us in many ways. Beyond its obvious necessity for our sustenance, the scent, colors and flavors of food can also feed our spirit by evoking deeply rooted emotions and memories. So it is for me whenever I smell roasting turkey and mashed potatoes intermingling with the scent of old wood and autumn leaves.
Church and firehouse suppers are a common occurrence during the fall in Upstate New York. There are pancake suppers, spaghetti suppers, ham suppers. In my estimation, none has ever touched the glory of the West Fulton Turkey supper hosted by the Methodists in the church hall at the crossroad that is our hamlet. It took place the third weekend of October, and was an affair revered by all who lived here. All the farms on our road would be reminded of its coming when Joyce Clapper, driven by her husband or son, would appear in our driveways to determine who was going to prepare what part of the feast. Although the affair was hosted by the church, participation was not limited to its parishioners. Joyce excluded no one. Even those of us who never set foot near a Sunday service were approached about contributing homegrown potatoes, roasting turkeys, or baking pies. And because no one was excluded, that dinner was significant for the entire community.
The morning of the supper was always unbearable for my brother and me growing up. Using wild apples we had picked, my mother baked several pies, none of which we were allowed to slice into. We were shooed outside, sent on missions to distract our eager bellies. Hence, the day was filled with activities — raking leaves, stacking firewood, sweeping porches, helping to move sheep, feeding chickens, all which only piqued our hunger. Once the pies had cooled, we would listen for my father to call us when he was about to drive them down into the hamlet. We did not want to miss the opportunity to pile in the truck beside him. Balancing the desserts in our laps, we’d press our noses to the pastry crusts in feeble attempts to satisfy ourselves with just the scent. We would carry the pies into the back of the church hall, where someone would sweep them from our arms. We’d strain to catch quick glimpses of the activity in the kitchen, but we were never able to see much before my father pulled us away and took us to stand on line to buy the six dollar supper tickets.
Returning home from this excursion, our appetites were fully titillated by the wooden scent of the old church hall mixed with the lingering aromas of roasting turkeys and luscious rolls, and the scent of countless vegetables from the summer’s harvest – butternut squash, boiling potatoes, red cabbage, pickled beats and apple and pumpkin pies. Still, we were careful to snack lightly for lunch so as to only hold our hunger at bay without squelching the appetite that played such a critical role in the entire event.
When dinnertime finally rolled around, we drove back down to the church hall, and the transformation that took place was amazing. Normally a sleepy place, cars now lined the roads that converged at the hamlet center. Farmers and townspeople meandered along the streets, stopping to chat as they caught up with friends walking ahead of them. Children played in the tiny park, kicking paths through a carpet of fallen leaves or swaying on a swing set. Teenagers stood on the bridges and tossed pebbles into the stream, as a line of hungry neighbors filled the stairwell leading to the upper level of the church hall, which was decorated with fresh autumn leaves and branches. It was on this day each year when this hamlet, little more than a post office, a church, a few old houses and farmland, was no longer merely a place to pass through or a place to leave behind. West Fulton became a destination. Three hundred people — from this town, the next town, and often New York City and New England, would eat dinner that night, joined by countless local family members from afar who would return home to West Fulton for the weekend just to help cook, clean, serve the food and continue a tradition that was started by Joyce Clapper’s grandmother one hundred years earlier. The turkey supper was always crowded, and we all shared tables with long time neighbors and newcomers alike.
Writing this essay is painful. These suppers stopped about 20 years ago. Joyce Clapper,no longer pulls into everyone’s driveways each year to determine who will contribute what. The beautiful wooden church hall still stands, but there are no longer enough volunteers to roast the turkeys, to peel potatoes, to bake the pies, to serve the supper. The population of the town dropped nearly 50% in the time between when the tradition began at the turn of the century and when it ended in the early 1990s. It saddens me that my husband and children have never had the opportunity to climb up those creaky stairs, to smell those leaves from the park, to savor the magnificent spread of food while sitting at a long table with some neighbors, and some new folks, catching up on the news of people’s children and discussing how the growing season had gone.
I refuse to believe that these suppers are gone forever from our community. I want us to find a way to have them take place again. My hope is that some new people will make their homes here, that they will share in our reverence for this hamlet, and together, as we become each others neighbors and friends, we will find the means to resurrect this great tradition and to honor those people who began it long before us. In the meantime, I keep those memories and scents and flavors alive in my mind, so that my appetite will again be piqued when the West Fulton Turkey suppers make their magnificent comeback.