On a Thursday afternoon last month, Gladys Smith had sweat pouring down her face. She had spent the day hunched over a wood-burning stove, stirring rutabagas, seasoning collards and boiling macaroni. Dozens of eaters, including a few prominent politicians, were scheduled to come for lunch at the camp meeting tent where she serves as head cook. And if previous lunches could be trusted, a few unanticipated guests were bound to join the crowd.
"You look up to them and pray to God you have enough food," says Smith.
For most Americans, there's only one day a year devoted to sitting down with the great-aunts, brothers-in-law and second cousins who are usually just faces in family pictures. Giving thanks for the year's bounty and then eating too much of it, mostly in the form of oldfangled foods that wouldn't have been out of place on 19th-century tables, is an activity customarily reserved for the fourth Thursday in November.
But in South Carolina, there's a centuries-old tradition of spending an entire week immersed in family, food, fellowship and faith. At five autumnal "camp meetings" in rural Dorchester County, Christians gather in primitive cabins, universally called "tents," encircling a central tabernacle.
Asked to describe camp meeting, longtime attendees (and because tents are inherited, there are no other kind of attendees) reliably demur. "You have to experience it," says Smith's boss, Barry Stephens, a Mount Pleasant Realtor who remembers riding his stick horse around Indian Field Methodist Campground. Now, there are so many children at play in the grassy expanse created by 99 huddled-together tents that Stephens' young son wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his tent's number so he'll be returned safely if he strays too far.
Leisure has become central to camp meetings. At Indian Field, the organizing events aren't the thrice-daily services, but the lavish country meals accessorized with white rice, brown rice, red rice and okra. Hired cooks fry dozens of chickens a day. No matter where you stand at Indian Field, there's sizzling oil within earshot. At nearby Shady Grove campground, Fridays are synonymous with fish fries and Saturdays mean barbecue.
During the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, when camp meetings swept the country, the yearly events weren't supposed to be fun. They offered farmers who lived in churchless communities the chance to give thanks for their harvests in the company of traveling preachers. At camps including Shady Grove, an emphasis on worship endures, although 93-year-old Alin Sally Rigby laments that folks don't shout the way they once did.
Camp meetings have changed, everyone says. Families bring groceries instead of live chickens to their outdoor kitchens, floored with straw. Rather than cram mattresses into upstairs bedrooms, they stay at the Hampton Inn. And at Shady Grove, port-a-johns have replaced privies.
Yet like Thanksgiving, the camp meetings continue. "I don't envision it ending, because of the love of camp meeting and what it stood for," says Shady Grove's Ordie Brown, who was born 83 years ago on a camp meeting Sunday. "There's still two black (camps) and three white (camps), and each one has our love for camp meeting."