Dinner on the Ground in the Upland South from Appalachia to the Ozarks, is an outdoor picnic held at Decoration Day events. The term originally referred to eating in a churchyard or cemetery with a picnic blanket spread on the ground. Nowadays, long tables and benches, sometimes sheltered by a pavilion, are used. Outside of this region, Decoration Day takes on different forms such as Homecoming, which also involve a “dinner on the ground.” Other names for Dinner on the Ground are: “dinner spread on the ground” in Arkansas and Texas, and “Feast in the Wilderness,” referring to interdenominational meals on every month with a fifth Sunday within African American churches in Jackson County, NC.
By definition, Dinner on the Ground is a time to share food outdoors with others of all ages in conjunction with a church meeting or ceremony. It is also a time for the women of the church to show off their cooking skills. Throughout the serving of the meal, each woman stays with the dish she prepared and acts as a hostess for hungry decorators, describing and encouraging others to try their food.
Traditional fare include fried chicken, green beans, potatoes, barbecued pork, pickled ramps, and “leather britches,” which are dried green beans cooked with hambone, fatback, or bacon. While all varieties of desserts are enjoyed at Dinner on the Ground, the traditional offering is a stack cake. The traditional stack cake is usually made of a molasses and spice cake, similar to gingerbread, and cut into many thin layers. The cake is then stacked in alternating layers with cooked dried apples or peaches. The finishing touch to this decadent cake is a layer of frosting. However, you will occasionally hear the term “stack cake” referring to any variety of cakes prepared in a similar manner.
“The food is a means of extending family hospitality to others, whether kin, friends, acquaintances, or strangers.” Dinner on the Ground is more than just a time to eat. It is a time for fellowship with loved ones and the community at large. It is a time to remember and celebrate life, whether it be the life of a deceased loved one, or the lives that lie ahead of the children playing while the adults sit and reminisce.
This moment is based on the work of Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour. Much of the material is taken from their book Decoration Day in the Mountains: The Tradition of Cemetery Decoration in Western North Carolina and the Upland South, published in 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press.