Sunday Dinner, Or: The Far-From-Easy Lot Of The Minister’s Wife

The Sunday-dinner staple at the Manse was roast beef. Cooked, like this one apparently is, to just the right shade of not even remotely pink.

Looking back on my years as “a child of the Manse,” as people sometimes call ministers’ children, I am frequently amazed by how my mother, Lorna – the minister’s wife – was able to accomplish all that she did.

Were it not enough to be raising four children all two years apart – so that in 1966, for example, she had a newborn, a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old – and manage the general care, feeding, cleaning and maintenance of the family and the big old Manse, she also did all the things The Minister’s Wife is supposed to do:

  • Attend, and sometimes lead, and sometimes host, United Church Women meetings;
  • Host many other church-committee meetings at the Manse, with refreshments always to be served afterward;
  • Unfailingly be at all church services with all children in tow (with their collection-plate quarters in hand, generally to be loudly dropped onto the church floor multiple times before the collection plate came around);
  • Make sure those same children made it to Sunday School (which, unlike in most churches today, was held before or after the service, the perfectly reasonable assumption being that children shouldn’t be excluded from the service proper);
  • Deal with any manner of church-related situation that might happen to come through the front door of the Manse, ranging from transients asking for money to parishioners in crisis needing to see the minister;
  • Help out at all church dinners and other functions;
  • Keep the Manse in a state of tidiness and repair such that parishioners (and especially Manse Committee members) who came through would not look down their nose at her housekeeping skills;
  • Iron the minister’s suit and shirt every Saturday night and before any other time it was needed;
  • And on and on and on and on.

On top of all that, my father was away working at the farm up in Haliburton County most Mondays and Tuesdays, which meant that Mum was on her own with us children those days.

I often wonder how she survived it. You may not be surprised to know that she does too.

It seems incredible that somewhere around 1970 my mum took on still more, resuming her pre-arrival-of-children career as a high-school teacher of French (and sometimes German and English) at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc. It began with supply teaching, but she eventually worked full-time. On top of everything else! But it’s not as surprising as it seems; in later years she has said that going back to teaching saved her life. It got her out of the house and the never-ending responsibilities there, and it gave her a chance to use her education and training again. A feminist tale, really, and I’m very proud of her for that.

But even once she started teaching – and even though those of us kids who were old enough to do so were pressed into service doing quite a few household chores – she was still The Minister’s Wife, and expected to continue carrying out all the duties that came with the title.

Which included Sunday Dinner.

In the 11 years that we lived at the Manse, I am certain that we had every single family from the four churches at which Dad was minister for dinner on at least one Sunday night. (There were some repeat visitors.) That meant preparing and serving up a sit-down dinner, ensuring engaging conversation before, during and after, and doing the cleanup at the end of the night – with no dishwasher, it seems almost unneccessary to add.

While I suspect (based on my own much more limited experiences as a hostess) that the cooking and cleanup part were far surpassed in stress-inducement by the hard work of carrying on sparkling conversation with people she may or may not have had all that much in common with, the cooking and cleanup part can’t be underestimated.

In what I am absolutely certain was a coping mechanism, Mum would turn out exactly the same meal Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was:

  • Roast beef (cooked to the point where “well done” would have been putting it mildly; let’s just say there were not the slightest traces of pink when those roasts were carved).
  • Mashed potatoes and gravy (the latter being made by Dad; that was his specialty, and he made it really well. He knew the secret ingredient of gravy: salt. By the handful.)
  • A vegetable of some sort, bought frozen: peas, or peas and carrots, or mixed vegetables.
  • A jellied salad. This, people, was the 1960s, the Golden Era of Jellied Salads, when they reached their pinnacle of ubiquitousness and social acceptability, especially in church circles. Later, in my early teens, I drew a line in the sand on that front and announced that henceforth no jellied salad would touch my lips. But I have to say that the one my Mum used to serve at the Manse was not all that bad, mainly because it wasn’t as Jello-y or as sweet as those things generally were. I believe the main ingredients were lime Jell-O, cottage cheese and pineapple chunks; the cottage cheese went a long way toward de-sweetening the thing. I think Mum still has the shallow glass bowl with the silver ring at the top (probably a wedding or shower gift) in which she served approximately 45,000 such salads, which her children uncharitably dubbed “Green Junk” (even as we hoovered it up).
  • Rolls (not homemade; my mother did not make bread) and butter.
  • A divided smoked-glass dish (another wedding gift I think) of celery and/or radishes, sweet pickles, and pimiento-stuffed olives. (A story about the latter in a soon-to-come post.)
  • Looks messy, but actually tastes quite lovely: Angel Pie.

    And dessert, which tended to be the one variable in the mix. In the very early years it was always a meringuey, very sweet thing called “Angel Pie.” Here is a recipe that I found just now online, and here’s another one for good measure, and they sound not unlike what I remember, though heavier on the lemon than I think my Mum’s can have been. For one thing, there was never an actual lemon in our kitchen. Ever. ReaLemon, yes. Not lemons, though. (Which is funny to me, because lemons are one thing I always have to have in my kitchen.) But anyway, later Mum started to mix it up with the pies: one of her specialties was raisin pie (secret ingredient: sugar) and, in season, rhubarb (ditto). She made a mean raspberry pie (you can guess what the secret ingredient was), but because she doesn’t like raspberries we unfortunately didn’t get that too often. And there would be vanilla ice cream with the pie. And weak tea to wash it down.

So that was the menu. It was repetitive for us – though we kids didn’t mind, because we liked roast beef and mashed potatoes, and besides, who were we to complain?

And the guests on any given Sunday night had no way of knowing that the people whose bums the previous Sunday, and the Sunday before that, and so on back through the years, had been in the same chairs that theirs now occupied, had eaten and enjoyed precisely the same meal that they were eating and enjoying now.

So absolutely no harm done. Quite the opposite, in fact: those dinners were nice, and it was enjoyable getting to know the guests. But oh, my mother: surely there is a very starry crown awaiting her in heaven. And the inscription below one of the brightest of the stars will read: “For Sunday Dinner.”

12 thoughts on “Sunday Dinner, Or: The Far-From-Easy Lot Of The Minister’s Wife

  1. This is so evocative and reminiscent of the Sunday dinners lovingly made and served by my mother, the rural-garage-owner’s wife. We often also had well-done roast beef (i.e. burnt offerings), but not always, with “all the fixings,” which included those damned jellied salads. Beautifully told, Katherine.

    • “Burnt offerings”: the perfect description for the roast beef, Jim! But I know you are of like mind, in that it really didn’t matter how the food was prepared or even what it was (even if it was jellied salad); what mattered was the work and the love that your mother and mine put into preparing so many comforting and enjoyable meals for family and guests.

    • A beautiful story, Kitty and an especially lovely ending. Heya Jim! L
      Those poor roasts: Not Dead Yet…

  2. What? No shout-out to Aunt Lorna’s butterscotch pie? It’s not just “butterscotch pie”…it will forever and always be “Aunt Lorna’s butterscotch pie” in my memory.

    • Now you’ve kind of got me on that one, Valerie. I think there is a butterscotch pie way back there in the mists of my memory – but do you by any chance mean Lorna’s Famous Butter Tart Pie? The one she brings (to much acclaim) for Thanksgiving each year? That one is indeed a popular entry (with, once again, a secret ingredient: sugar) but it’s a pretty recent arrival in the repertoire. No Butter Tart Pie in the Manse days, for sure.

      • No, it was definitely butterscotch pie, complete with meringue on top. I think Nancy got the recipe from her originally…can you help me out, Nancy? On the other hand, your mom’s butter tart pie surpasses all other pies and cannot be confused with anything, ever, anywhere in the history of pie.

        ISunday nights in our house, Dad was in charge of the roast beef, and it was flawlessly cooked and carved just about every time. I don’t think I ever experienced an over(home)cooked roast of beef until (ahem) I met my mother-in-law.

      • Okay, so why have I never partaken of Uncle Philip’s Famous Roast Beef? It sounds like he has a thing or two to teach some of us about Sunday Dinner!

  3. I can confirm that one of my own family’s best-loved desserts (lower on the list than butter tart pie, to be sure), and a big hit with anyone whenever I make it (not often), is a meringue-topped pie with custardy butterscotch filling. I can’t remember how I got the recipe from Lorna — obviously I’d had it and liked it at your place or Gelert — but I do know that I first made it as a teenager on a day when there was a combine crew working at our place. Back then — I don’t know if the tradition persists — the woman on the farm hiring the crew provided meals, including a big farm dinner at noon, for the person running the combine. I believe Mum asked me (you are aware that I enjoy baking…) to help one day by making a dessert. So in my wisdom, I decided to try a brand-new recipe as Mum worked away in the heat of the tiny pantry you no doubt remember, Katherine. Anyway, the pie turned out well, and I have made it many times since. But come to think of it, I have never had or even seen butterscotch meringue pie anywhere else, and I’ve been to more than my share of church dinners. From the sound of it, you may never have had it at all, which is regrettable. It’s one of a handful of delicious, reliable recipes I asked your mum for over the years, including what she called Swedish rings, but most people know as jam thumbprints, and the best dressing/stuffing recipe ever.

    • I am somewhat mortified that my cousins know more about my mother’s dessert recipes than I do. It could be, though, that I never consigned butterscotch pie to memory because I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of butterscotch. Chocolate all the way for me. And here’s what a dope I am on cookies: neither “Swedish rings” nor “jam thumbprints” mean a thing to me. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever even made a batch of cookies – aside from those Pillsbury ones where you bought the refrigerated pre-made dough in a tube and sliced them and put them on a cookie sheet and into the oven. Oh dear.

      Well do I remember that tiny pantry at your folks’ house, Nancy! A lot of good meals came out of that pantry over the years.

      And as for Lorna’s dressing/stuffing recipe, it really is the best. Simple too!

  4. Katherine, I’m surprised Raymond didn’t comment on this post and tell you that our Mom also cooked roast beef week after week after week for Sunday dinner (served promptly at noontime). It was Dad’s favorite and she cooked for him, after all. Hers was cooked in a roasting pan on top the stove (yes, a wedding gift) and towards the end of the cooking time, she added potatoes and carrots to the mix. I have never, to this day, had potatoes that were so perfectly browned as my Mom’s potatoes. While the roast was also cooked to the nth degree (no sign of pink ever), it was never dry because she always stood over the stove, constantly checking and adding just the right amount of water to keep the roast moist and the broth brown. We used to groan about the same meal every week, and we’d always try to get excused from Sunday dinner, though that didn’t happen too often. After all, someone had to do the dishes after a family of eight ate! After Dad passed away (much too soon in 1984), Mom expanded her repertoire and cooked many delicious Sunday dinners for years and years afterwards (my favorite being her roast pork), but I have to say: I’d give my right arm (I’m left-handed) to go back to those days where we’d all sit around the table having that meal, and I’d reach for the crust of a loaf of bread (’cause that’s what Dad liked best) and I’d soak his tea bags for him at the end of the meal (two tea bags, not one!) Had we realized back then how blessed we were, we would have never complained about eating pot roast week after week…*sigh*

    • What a lovely story, Jeannie. You are absolutely right: none of us realized at the time how absolutely blessed we were to be gathered as a family around the table, sharing a great home-cooked meal. Wouldn’t any of us be so glad to be able to return to that family table, the unbroken circle, for just one meal? It makes tears come to my eyes just to think of it.

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