There were special clothes for Sunday. Women wore hats. In winter the hats were small and fit the head closely. From Easter until Labor Day hats could be large and were often made of straw and decked out with artificial flowers. “A Mrs. Collins,” the Presbyterian says, “wore a wide skimmer that carried an entire artificial robin’s nest on the rim with a robin sitting on three aqua eggs. My father held me up to count them.”
Another Presbyterian remembers, “Our minister was Scottish. He spoke with a burr and preached heaven and hell…more hell than heaven. He was very fierce, pointing fingers and slamming his fist. He shouted about burrrrrning pits and eterrrrrnal torment and fairly spit lists of sins. I was not a particularly religious or pious child. But I was conscientious. My stomach would turn. I could almost feel myself falling. It took years before I recovered from some of his sermons, before I got back, you might say, my balance.”
A man in his 70s, retired from teaching musicology in a state university, says he despised the church music popular in the ’20s and ’30s. “The anthem business was flourishing,” he says. “Anthem and solo manufacturers, not composers, mass-produced music: ghastly texts, morbid and gruesome; sentimental, insipid, ersatz music.
“And the soloists! Oh God! There was usually a big-chested woman whose contralto vibrated in a wide, yawing tremolo. Pitch was flat. I remember one tenor, a bookkeeper during the week, a stringy pale man — almost albino. Whenever he sang any text that related to crucifixion he would stretch out his arms as if he were nailed to the cross and roll back his eyes until all you saw was white.
“I was in my first university teaching position, and poor. I eventually played every Protestant church in the area to supplement my income. I got $10 for Sunday and $5 for Thursday-night choir rehearsal. I often went to the latter slightly tipsy. The Methodists, however, were the only church that fired me. They were annoyed because I repeatedly fell asleep during the sermon. And snored.”
A man who claims he never goes to church now, except for funerals, suggests there was value to churchgoing. “Just the hours on those hard pews,” he says, “forced me to think some equally hard thoughts.” On Sunday his Baptist mother renewed her pleas that his father sign the “temperance pledge.” His father rarely drank, but he refused to sign. “Until the day he died,” he says, “she kept after him. She had come from a family of women who got together with other ladies and took axes to the saloons…broke them all up and the like. She saw the temperance pledge as much necessary to salvation as church and prayer. My father was the only man in her crowd of womenfolks without the gold temperance pin on his Sunday suit. I think sometimes she drove him to his death sooner with all that talk about liquor than corn liquor would ever have done.”
Before World War II women’s magazines featured Sunday dinner menus. This was the week’s most important meal, and second only to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners in elaborateness. Larger cuts of meat — roast beef, crown rib, pot roast, leg of lamb, ham, goose, duckling, a roasting hen, a spring turkey, and fried chicken were served on Sundays. Individual cuts of meat — steak, cutlets, chops — were weekday fare. On Sunday the family shared one piece of meat. There would be mashed potatoes, gravy, fresh vegetables in spring and summer, fruit salad, fussy gelatin molds, homemade yeast rolls, and in some homes, two desserts, perhaps a coconut or Red Devil cake and a lemon meringue or black bottom pie. One woman remembers that her father always stopped on the way home from church at the ice cream parlor and bought ice cream — New York vanilla, made with egg yolk.
Fried chicken was the national Sunday food in summer. By the Fourth of July the male chick, born around Easter, would have reached its apotheosis as a fryer. The fried chicken would be served then with fresh roasted corn, sliced tomatoes from the garden, and perhaps corn muffins baked in cast-iron pans that gave the muffins the shape of small ears of corn. In the homes of Episcopalians, a cocktail might be served before dinner and wine with the meal.
The Southerner who recalls Sunday school marshmallow fluff and flannel boards remembers how chicken tasted different then. “Not rubbery. Our cook, Annie, wrung the chicken’s neck in the back yard, then cut off the head. My brother and I hated that. The chicken squawked. And it ran, with its head off, in a circle. Annie took a pot of boiling water outside, and holding the chicken by its feet, she plunged its carcass up and down in the steaming water. Our dog would tear around yapping while she plucked the feathers. When the chicken was plucked, she brought it into the kitchen and singed its pin feathers over the burner on the gas stove.”
While dinner cooked, and later that day, the young Southerner would walk around the chokecherry where chicken blood had dropped on the red dirt. He scuffed at the blood spots. The dog licked the ground, and chicken feathers stuck to its muzzle. He would kick the daylights out of that dog.
The Presbyterian whose Scottish preacher raised specters of hell describes Sunday dinner as the time when the best linens, silver, china, and crystal came out. Inevitably, some of the napery and serving pieces were heirlooms. Using these pieces would remind the family of stories about aunts and grandparents and great-uncles. “In those days too,” she adds, “you were close to your cousins. It was possible to have one’s first big crush on a cousin, and that was one of my sins as a teenager.” Because the family circle was larger 50 years ago, she says, one knew more people more intimately.