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A Sacred Meal on a Styrofoam Plate

In our “Table of Contents” series, we ask an author to describe the food that relates to their new book. Here’s Margo Orlando Littell on the complicated church dinners of Appalachia.

by Margo Orlando Littell, author of Each Vagabond by Name

margoThere’s nothing quite like a small-town spaghetti dinner. They happen all the time, mostly for fundraising purposes, often for community celebrations. They take place in community centers, high-school cafeterias, and church social halls. They take many forms—the event could as easily be a spaghetti dinner as a pancake breakfast. Church fairs—especially those for ethnic Catholic churches—also fall into this category of social food events. A few things about these events are certain:

  • The food will either be exceptional (Italian church fairs) or forgettable (all other events).
  • You will know almost everyone there.
  • A stranger walking in will feel, because of quick sideways glances or imperceptible blips of silence, more like a stranger than he or she did a moment before.

If you’re from a very small town, you’ve likely had a lifetime of spaghetti dinners, or pancake breakfasts, or church fairs. And if you’re not? If you’re traveling through an unfamiliar town, and you see a sign that says SPAGHETTI DINNER TONIGHT with a hand-drawn arrow pointing toward a local church? You best pass on by. Oh, you may get your plate of food, you may get smiles from the women carrying the plates from the kitchen, but you won’t be welcome there. People will watch you when you leave. And as you walk back through the chilly night to your car, you’ll feel like you’d unwittingly crashed a family function, or unknowingly pocketed a child’s treasured coins. Baselessly guilty, vaguely fearful, glad to be getting on your way.

In my novel, Each Vagabond by Name, a spaghetti dinner brings a crucial turning point for my characters. In the story, which is set in the Appalachian foothills of Pennsylvania, food is little more than basic sustenance, eaten by lonely people who’ve worked too many hours at back-breaking jobs to buy the food they barely taste. My characters have more pressing concerns: specifically, the “gypsies,” a band of young thieves who have set up camp in the mountains and begun robbing the modest homes in the town of Shelk. The thieves are little more than runaway kids, but the Shelk locals are angry and fearful, and the tension is intensifying between those who belong in Shelk and those who don’t.

In Vagabond’s spaghetti dinner, the menu is important:

Spaghetti with tomato sauce, made by a group of women who preside over the church kitchen like military generals

Meatballs, made by the same women months ago and kept frozen in one of the women’s basement chest freezer

White sheet cake from the Shop N’ Save, with plain white frosting


fair-foodThe dinner is put on by the local Lions Club in celebration of a town-wide pigeon shoot—a riotous event that draws the town’s hunters to Main Street, where they shoot pigeons out of a decrepit, abandoned bank building. The shoot devolves into violent hollers about pretending that the doomed pigeons are the “gypsies,” and this energy carries over to the dinner. Everyone is there: the hunters, their wives, the rest of the Shelk community. There are no strangers. There are no surprises. It’s a party; it’s a ritual; everyone, from Junie Snyder collecting money by the door to Betty Wyatt serving up spaghetti in the kitchen, has an expected role to play. It’s as safe a space as one can find in Shelk.

And so, when four young thieves appear at the door of the church hall, a reckoning is served along with the spaghetti and meatballs. The $5 meal, presented on Styrofoam plates, is far from anything valuable or gourmet—but, at the same time, it’s so much more than a tangle of overcooked pasta and a piece of store-bought cake. It represents their homes, their safety, their quiet, ordinary lives. It’s everything Shelkians hold sacred, and—make no mistake—they’ll defend it.

After the dinner, the men all gather for drinks at a local bar that is the heart of Each Vagabond by Name. The drink menu there is basic:

IC Light, in cans

And, occasionally:

Whiskey, for the cuckolded

These menus go no further than basic small-town fare. But access to the spaghetti, or the ice-dripping cans of IC Light, is limited—as elusive, if not as sought after, as Wonka’s golden tickets. These foods and drinks are for Shelkians. They were not prepared for you. You may be hungry, you may want to shoot the shit over a beer, but it’s best for everyone if you seek your sustenance elsewhere.

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