On the first Sunday of October at Noon every year, my family shares the time-honored tradition of attending Homecoming and Dinner on the Grounds at Historic Richland Baptist Church, known fondly to the locals as “Old Richland.” Since the 1800’s, family and friends have gathered among the Middle Georgia pines of Twiggs County to worship and fellowship. With a nip in the air, this year was no exception. The service is reverent, the food is plentiful and the people are like coming home.
A landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, Richland Baptist Church was built on October 5, 1811 and began with four male and eight female members. Situated down a long gravel road, the large-frame, white wooden church is constructed with a wide front porch and four columns that stretch across the front of the building. Complete with two aisles on the inside and three sections of long wooden church pews, the tall windows, dressed with black shutters, reach nearly to the rooftop. The original heart-pine wooden floors creak with rich history, and the chime of a metal church bell–three times–still signals the beginning of service. True to the original time period, the church has no modern day amenities; guests still use outhouses for restrooms. There is no sound system, but truth be told, microphones and speakers aren’t missed; the acoustics in the expansive room produce some of the most beautiful sounds my ears have ever heard.
During the 206th Anniversary Celebration this year, a gentleman by the name of Russell provided the special music for the service. With only a guitar, he sang a heartfelt solo and then led the congregation in a melody of hymns, inviting others to sing along. Upon the strum of the first cord, without hesitation, every church member lifted their voices in unison. As the harmonies filled the air, I was touched by the powerful sense of place, the belief we all share in faith and truth echoing in the melodies. The familiar songs, “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Saw the Light” and “Amazing Grace” are written on our hearts, memorized from our youth and, like a freely flowing river, run through our very veins.
Once the service is over, everyone piles out of the church and onto the grounds, forming two lines down either side of a 40-foot cement table filled with every Southern covered dish you could imagine. Heaping baskets of fried chicken, pork tenderloin, barbecue, Brunswick stew, buttermilk biscuits, casseroles, congealed salads and a variety of cakes, pies and cobblers fill our plates in true Baptist fashion. This year, I made sweet potato pie and an old fashioned heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers and onion. There were no leftovers.
Much like the music that bears witness to my upbringing, the foodways of a land are never more proud than Dinner on the Grounds. The banquet table in all its glory is the Song of the South, the anthem of farmers, the prized recipes of generations gone before us.
Today, Old Richland is managed by Richland Restoration League, a volunteer committee formed to ensure the upkeep of the building and the grounds. Services are held only three times yearly, for Homecoming and a special fundraising event during Christmastime. Though the locals now meet every Sunday at New Richland, a small country church just a few miles away with such modern amenities as air conditioning and running water, we all look forward to that special fall day when the doors at Old Richland open once more and the church bells call us home.
Julian’s Sweet Potato Pie
Recipe as printed in the Blue Willow Inn Bible of Southern Cooking
Yield 8 Servings
2 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure lemon extract
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 9-inch frozen flaky pie crust
Whipped topping, optional
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, sugar, butter, salt, vanilla and lemon extracts, condensed milk, eggs, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Mix well. Pour the mixture into the frozen piecrust. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for 35-40 minutes more. If desired, garnish each slice with a small amount of whipped cream and nutmeg.
Watch this Facebook Live video of me cooking my Homecoming offering: Sweet Potato Pie! Note: After making this recipe, I would omit the pure lemon extract, but it is a personal preference.
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Georgia native Rebekah Faulk Lingenfelser is a freelance writer, entertainer and food enthusiast who writes and speaks about her love of good food and the Coastal South. A Season 2 Contestant on ABC’s “The Taste,” she is the Statesboro Herald food columnist and host of SKG-TV on YouTube. A public relations graduate of Georgia Southern University, Rebekah also attended Savannah Technical College’s Culinary Institute of Savannah. To learn more, connect with Some Kinda Good on social media, or visit RebekahFaulk.wix.com/RebekahFaulk.