Chris Williams' cooking career at Trinity Presbyterian Church in North Raleigh, N.C., began while tailgating at a North Carolina State University football game.
Williams was new to the church and had just met Tom Carrigan on his family's second visit. A few hours later, the two men pulled into their separate tailgating spots outside Carter-Finley stadium for a rare Sunday night game and recognized each other. Once Carrigan spotted the grill that Williams had built, he announced: "You are helping me cook at church from now on."
For six years, the pair has been integral volunteers for the church's annual Sonshine Festival. Held every August, the festival, now in its eighth year, is a combination yard sale, silent auction, bake sale and barbecue chicken and hot dog plate fundraiser. This year, the church raised about $6,000, a portion of which was donated to Meals on Wheels of Wake County and Hospice of Wake County, N.C.
Barbecue plates, chicken dinners, fish frys — churches have long used such events to beckon people to their doors and raise money for ministries or expansion. Some churches even have permanent barbecue pits, says barbecue expert Bob Garner: "It builds traffic at the church and cements the church in the community."
Breaking bread together is a longstanding religious tradition that ranges from the Last Supper to ending the fast during Ramadan. Enjoying a meal, says Trinity Presbyterian's pastor, the Rev. David Huffman, brings people together: "The end result is fellowship and community."
For the volunteers, such events are a way to use their skills to serve the church. Williams learned how to feed crowds of people while running a catering business in college. Mary Ann Seiple, who will take customers' orders in the kitchen, says she loves to cook, garden and watch The Food Network. This volunteer job, she says, "fits with my skills."
Plus, Huffman says, the effort creates a more close-knit community among the church's 450 active members: "People who work together toward a goal tend to really bond."
The event's planning starts in January, but the cooks' work starts in earnest a week before the event, with shopping trips to Costco to buy soft drinks, bottled water, 150 chicken quarters, hot dogs, 6-pound cans of green beans and whole new potatoes, 32-ounce jars of ketchup, mustard and relish, paper products and coleslaw ingredients.
The ingredients are laid out in the church's kitchen, about the size of a living room and equipped with an oven, warmer, fridge, prep table and dish sink that you might find in a restaurant kitchen. The day before the festival, Williams, 46, this year's head cook, is in that kitchen preparing coleslaw. He tosses shredded cabbage with mayonnaise and vinegar. He measures sugar, celery seeds, salt and pepper in the palm of his plastic-gloved hands.
While mixing the coleslaw, Williams chats about building his first pig cooker when he was 16 from a 250-gallon oil drum, an apparatus that is still being used by a cousin in Candor, N.C., w here he grew up. Williams, an N.C. State alumnus, helped pay for college by running that catering company with a cousin.
Once the coleslaw is ready, Williams, now a product marketing consultant for Caterpillar, tastes and says, "Not too bad." He'll taste it again in 30 minutes to see what to add after the flavors meld. The coleslaw goes into the refrigerator. He'll mix up the secret-recipe barbecue sauce "probably in the middle of the night when nobody's around." His only hints on the ingredients: orange juice and rosemary.
The next day at 7 a.m. Williams and fellow volunteer cook Dale Overcash are placing raw chicken quarters onto two large tailgating-sized gas grills behind the church. (Carrigan is away, taking a son to college.) Meanwhile, another frequent church cook, Bill Mercer, cooks sausage and eggs on a nearby gas grill for a few volunteers.
After breakfast, Williams is back in the church kitchen frying fatback in a large stock pot that will soon hold the green beans and potatoes. When the fatback is crispy, he adds black pepper and sugar to the sizzling meat, a trick he learned from his fraternity house cook. "Always put your seasonings in the bottom," says Williams, then adds green beans, potatoes and water to cover.
Hot dogs go in the steamer, chili in the slow cooker. Williams and Mary Ann Seiple rearrange the kitchen: a line of coolers with iced drinks, hot dog buns behind the steamer, an assembly line of paper products.
Outside, Overcash and Mercer are flipping the chicken quarters, mopping each with barbecue sauce. As the chicken finishes cooking, the men place the pieces in foil pans, which are taken to the kitchen to stay warm in the oven.
At 10:25 a.m., the crew in the church kitchen serve its first hot dog plate.
For this work, Williams dons a red apron that says: "Have you hugged a Presbyterian today?" As more orders come in, a line of volunteers cranks out $7.50 chicken plates or $2.50 hot dog plates to order.
At noon, when the kitchen crew has served almost all of the first batch of chicken that came off the grill, Williams and Mercer bring the last two trays into the kitchen. Their work is now done.
As they leave, Mercer says to Williams: "Good job, chef."