As I’m sure it did with most congregations, COVID hit our church hard. When the pandemic became a major crisis, worship at Calvary Baptist Church went from in-person to virtual.
On some Sunday mornings, the pastors were in their own homes, and through the magic of Zoom, we would watch as Randall Bradley led the music from his living room, and then Mary Alice Birdwhistell would give the sermon from the patio of her house, then it was back to Randall for a final song.
From there, as guidelines were changed, ministers and musicians would gather — appropriately spaced, of course — in the otherwise empty sanctuary and broadcast worship from there. Our son, Brazos, would often play drums during these virtual services, and, since he wasn’t old enough to drive, I was with him and sat in the back of the sanctuary while the service was taking place. It was a bit surreal to watch a worship service take place in an empty sanctuary.
Sometime during the whole COVID thing, we had a change in leadership. Mary Alice left to become pastor at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky; and after an interim period, Calvary called Hannah Coe as its new senior pastor.
Also, we finally…finally…were able to resume our in-person worship.
At Calvary, we take part in Communion about once a month. Prior to COVID, we would take Communion by intinction, which means that we go to one of several stations throughout the sanctuary and a deacon pulls off a small piece of bread from a loaf and offers it, along with a spoken blessing, to the congregants. We then dip the bread into the chalice of juice, and another deacon offers an additional blessing.
However, that tradition was paused during Covid. We were instead provided with a pre-packaged wafter-and-juice that we took while sitting in the pews.
But August 28, we returned to Communion by intinction, and it was an emotional experience. I didn’t realize how much I had missed this one thing in our worship services. And what made the moment even more special was the music being sung during Communion. Elaine Sury was the soloist on “Crowded Table,” a song recorded by The Highwomen in 2019. And as we all waited our turns — for the first time in more than two years — for bread and juice and blessings, the third verse and chorus really hit home.
The door is always open
Your picture’s on my wall
Everyone’s a little broken
And everyone belongs
Yeah, everyone belongs
I want a house with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Let us take on the world while we’re young and able
And bring us back together when the day is done
We’re big fans of people crowding around our table. More often than not, we have an extra teenager or two at our house for dinner. If there’s an opportunity, we’re always up for hosting a dinner party. We have one on the calendar for next month, and we’re going to write about that in the January issue of Wacoan.
For my job at Baylor, I teach one class that consists of mostly first-year students who are journalism majors, and we usually invite them over for dinner sometime during the semester. Last year, we hosted them on a Sunday evening in October, and the weather was nice enough where we were able to set up tables on the front porch and eat outside. Instead of a large casserole or something along those lines, we instead prepared three big pots of soup and some homemade bread. Many students went back for seconds (maybe more), so that meal was quite a hit. For us, just sitting and listening to them talk and laugh was the highlight of that night.
We’re going to host this semester’s crop of students as well, and I think we’re just going to use the same menu. And, really, the food doesn’t matter. Some of these students are far from home, many for the first time, and they simply appreciate a home-cooked meal. And the crowded table that we’re able to enjoy together is just as much a blessing as that Sunday morning communion a couple of months ago.
- 2 to 3 bone-in, skin-on, chicken; legs, thighs, drumsticks or a mix
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 large fennel bulb (preferably with the top on)
- 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 pound small potatoes, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
- 1 lemon, coarsely chopped (discard the seeds), plus 1 additional lemon for zesting and juicing
- 4 dried chiles de árbol or 1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
- 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon fennel seed
- 1 cup fresh dill, coarsely chopped
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- Sour cream, full-fat Greek yogurt or feta (optional)
Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
Working in batches, add chicken, skin-side down, and cook until skin is well browned and fat has started to render, 5 to 8 minutes. Using tongs, flip chicken and continue to cook until well browned, another 3 to 5 minutes. Leaving all the fat and drippings behind, transfer chicken to a rimmed baking sheet, a large plate or a cutting board and let rest.
Meanwhile, if you’ve got the top of the fennel bulb, thinly slice it, fronds and all, and set aside.
Coarsely chop the white part of the fennel bulb and add to the pot along with the garlic and onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened but not yet browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Add potatoes, chopped lemon and chiles, and stir to coat.
Return chicken to the pot and add broth, seasoning with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and place the lid on the pot. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook at a strong simmer until chicken is cooked through and nearly falling off the bone, 20 to 25 minutes. Using tongs, remove chicken and let rest until it’s cool enough to handle. Pick the meat from the chicken, removing any cartilage, skin and bones. (Alternatively, leave the chicken pieces intact and serve that way.)
Return meat to the pot along with the thinly sliced fennel top, if using. Season the soup with salt and pepper, turn the heat to medium-low and continue to gently simmer while you make the toasted fennel seed topping.
Heat remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil in a small pot or skillet over medium. Add fennel seed and half of the fresh dill, and swirl until fennel seed is toasted and dill is sizzling and crispy, about 2 minutes.
Divide soup among bowls, and spoon fennel seed topping over it, followed by scallions and remaining fresh dill. Add a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, or crumbles of feta. Zest the remaining lemon over the bowls, then cut lemon in half to squeeze juice over them too. Makes about 6 servings.
Creamy Tomato Soup
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
- Two 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
- One 46-ounce bottle or can tomato juice
- 3 to 6 tablespoons sugar
- 3 chicken bouillon cubes
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
In a large pot or Dutch oven set over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the diced tomatoes and tomato juice and stir to combine.
Add 3 tablespoons of sugar. Taste and add more as needed. Some tomatoes are more acidic than others, thus will need more sugar.
Add the bouillon cubes, then add freshly ground black pepper to taste and stir to combine.
Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the soup almost to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the cream, and add the basil and parsley. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 (15-ounce) can black beans
- 1 (16-ounce) can pinto beans
- 1 (16-ounce) can kidney beans
- 1 (15- or 16-ounce) can whole kernel corn
- 1 (10-ounce) can diced tomatoes with green chiles
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 2 (1-ounce) packets taco seasoning
- 2 (1-ounce) packets ranch dressing and seasoning mix
- 2 cups water
In a large stock pot over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef with the onion. Once cooked through, drain the grease and return the meat and onion to the pot.
Add the three types of beans and corn – all undrained – to the pot. Add the undrained tomatoes and the taco seasoning and ranch mix. Stir to combine. Heat until boiling
Reduce the heat and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with sour cream, corn chips and cheddar cheese, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings
Spinach Feta Bread
- 1 cup packed, cooked and chopped spinach (The spinach can be lightly steamed, boiled or sauteed.)
- 3 cups lukewarm water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (2 packets) granulated yeast
- 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Squeeze the cooked spinach through a strainer to get rid of the excess water.
Mix the yeast, salt, spinach, cheese and sugar with the water in a 5-quart bowl or a lidded (but not airtight) food container.
Mix in the flour, without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup capacity food processor with a dough attachment or a heavy-duty stand mixer with a dough hook. If you’re not using a machine, you may need to wet your hands to incorporate the last bit of flour.
Loosely cover and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses (or flattens on the top), approximately 2 hours. The dough can be used immediately after the initial rise, though it is easier to handle when cold. Refrigerate in a loosely-lidded container and use within 7 days.
When ready to bake, dust the surface of the dough with flour and cut off 1 pound of dough (about the size of a grapefruit). Dust the piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn with each stretch. Sprinkle a pizza peel with cornmeal and place the dough ball on the peel to rest for 1 hour, or 40 minutes if you’re using fresh, unrefrigerated dough.
About 20 minutes before baking, heat the oven to 450 F. Place a baking stone on the middle oven rack and an empty boiler tray on any other shelf.
Sprinkle the loaf liberally with flour and then slash a cross, scallop or other pattern across the top of the ball with a serrated knife. Leave the flour in place for baking but tap off before eating.
Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone. Pour 1 cup hot water into the broiler tray and quickly close the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until deeply browned and firm. Allow to cool before slicing. Makes four 1-pound loaves.