Our Daily Bread… And Pierogi… and Borscht

While church dinners and coffee hours may seem like quaint get-togethers from days of yore, local churches provide a variety of often-elaborate eats

Sure, some of the Valley’s churches continue to serve coffee, tea, juice, and store-bought cookies after their weekly services; some only have social get-togethers once a month. But others really expand the notion of “our daily bread” by serving sophisticated meals. Sometimes families sign up to take turns, other times it is done by committee.

Perhaps the most elaborate example is the buffet served from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day by St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hunter. The church is located in the heart of the Catskills, a favorite vacation spot for Ukrainians. The women of the church start cooking on Thursday: On Friday they make vareniki (pierogi, or dumplings), some with sauerkraut, others with potatoes and onions, or full of blueberries and served with cream. On Saturday, various meats are cooked — from thick pork slices to cabbage rolls and chicken croquettes. Borscht, the traditional beet soup, as well as salads and desserts are also prepared. On Sunday, the finishing touches are made to this delicious buffet, which is open to all and helps the church meet its expenses for the year. It works like a salad bar: You fill your plate, the cashier weighs it, and charges you accordingly. When I was there, most people spoke Ukrainian, and they were all very friendly and helpful. I had the feeling of having discovered a fabulous secret.

The church building itself offers a unique opportunity to learn about traditional Ukrainian church architecture. Completed in 1962, it was built from cedar logs in the timber block work style of the Carpathian Mountain highlanders. The interior decoration was executed by two prominent Ukrainian artists, and includes icons and elaborate wood carvings. Other nearby buildings include a bell tower, parsonage, and parish hall — which accommodates various cultural activities as well as a gift shop with works by Ukrainian artists and craftsmen.

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The Reformed Church of Shawangunk in Wallkill also serves a substantial meal. Founded in 1753 and situated among the Shawangunk Mountains, it is the oldest church building in continuous use by the Reformed Church in America. The coffee hours are run by families who sign up for the task; they often feature homemade baked goods or personal specialties (one of the cooks, for instance, is known for her quiches). In addition, this church has a well-attended potluck dinner every third Sunday, and various food-related events are held during the year — such as silent cake auctions, bake sales, and a December “cookie walk.” Another favorite is the “dip dinner” (you pay 50 cents per dip of the spoon), with crowd-pleasers such as homemade mac and cheese, hearty beef stew, and corn chowder.

Of course, church dinners are nothing new. But today’s coffee hours seem plain in comparison to those of the First Church in Albany, whose archives include an accounting for a dinner held on December 11, 1802. It lists expenses for tongue, cheese, butter, bread, beets, cucumbers, mustard, sherry wine, and brandy; it was approved for payment by William Staats and Teunis V. Van Vechten, two well-known Dutch names in our area. That same church owns other historical items: It has an oak pulpit imported from the Netherlands in the spring of 1657, which was at the center of the original “blockhouse” church on the corner of what is now Broadway and State Street.

Another church with a long history of offering food to its congregants is the “white church on the hill, in the hamlet of South Salem, NY.” The South Salem Presbyterian Church was founded in 1752. The building is surrounded by ancient trees and a historic burial ground, the final resting place for 27 Revolutionary War soldiers. Today it has a busy coffee hour every Sunday, where people linger and enjoy themselves with friends and neighbors. In the early 20th century, the church held many fairs — and the “pressed chicken” served at those fairs was legendary for miles around. Churchwoman Carrie Hunt prepared it from stewing fowl donated by the local farmers. The chickens were cooked slowly with onion, salt, and pepper; the meat was removed from the bones, separated into white and dark meat, and then ground (a job for the children). The two meats were alternately layered in a loaf pan and moistened with broth; a same-size pan, which held a brick for weight, was placed on top, and the loaf was refrigerated. Constance Hunt, Carrie’s niece and 87 years old at the time of our interview, remembered that when her aunt purchased her first electric refrigerator, she bought the largest size possible in order to accommodate the many pans of pressed chicken for that one day of the year. The church is also proud that it has published five cookbooks, starting with The Queen of the Kitchen in 1880. This tome is full of typical 19th-century recipes for all sorts of cakes, such as Gold and Silver cakes — which were cut into squares and stacked alternately — Lincoln cake, and Washington cake.

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