Hallujah, it's Christmas in the Ozarks
All were welcome at the Christmas Dinner at the Shell Knob Community Center, as this sign parked out by the highway mentions. The Lion's Club meets there the second Monday of every month at noon. (Peggy Lowe)
I was confused for just a second when we entered the Shell Knob Community Building on Christmas Eve Day because I wondered why they were playing bingo.
But the hall’s bingo board on a far wall was dark. Turns out that large bearded guy with a Madonna mic, the headset anchored under his Santa hat, was rattling off numbers for the prize raffle.
It was a big day for this small town in southwest Missouri, one of the few stops on Table Rock Lake down in the Ozarks. My partner’s mom lives here, which is not quite to Arkansas, but we could see it from there.
Every year, the Alliance of Churches in Shell Knob, population 1,379, holds a community dinner at Christmas. We went last year and were charmed by how everyone turns out to eat together – the dinner is not just for the poor people, as the other people like to say.
Of the five stations in the kitchen, Carol was scooping up the sweet potatoes. Word was that someone brought that recipe from New Orleans, and geez, didn’t that Raisin Bran topping make it crunchy! The others were standing at school cafeteria-sized pans of stuffing, white turkey meat, dark turkey meat, ham, green beans and gravy.
We picked up our Styrofoam plate, said thanks but no thanks to the Girl Scouts who asked if we needed help, and went into the dining room where we picked up rolls, butter and fruit salad. We sat at tables that stretched the length of the hall and I must report that the meal was delicious. But then, I’ve never met a mashed potato I didn’t like.
Most of the ladies had on their Christmas sweaters, no irony involved, so there was a bevy of bedazzled poinsettias, dancing reindeer and Mrs. Clauses knitwear. Lee, the chief organizer and gravy-maker, once again wore his Santa T-shirt that was equal parts Christmas magic and Journey ballad: “Don’t stop believin’.”
I remarked to the nice lady in the festive sweater vest sitting next to me that I was sure this dinner also helped some people who may be hungry this year. Well yes, she said, the schools down here are 100 percent free lunch, referring to the National School Lunch Program number that is an often-used indicator of poverty.
Why is that, I asked.
“Laziness, really,” she said. “And they already get all those free commodities from the government!”
And here my reporter wonky brain figured that she’d offer the true underlying reasons, like low incomes, poor education or drug use. There’s a reason the movie Winter’s Bone was set in the rural Ozarks.
I often cringe when people talk about small towns as some kind of homespun hierarchy of morality. But I also rail against the East Coast and West Coast stereotype as the middle states being a black hole of idiocy.
So I wasn’t surprised by the lady’s remark: more than 78 percent of this county voted for Donald Trump. But it also occurred to me that this dinner – put on by kind, generous, God-loving souls – is a nice slice of explanation for what Politico called “revenge of the rural voter.” I’ll take that with a nice slice of that pecan pie, thank you very much.
The comment also reminded me of a book I need to read this year: “Strangers in Their Own Land,” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. A Berkeley professor, she spent time embedded in Louisiana and came away with the theory that we must learn about the people on the other side of our own political divide – and learn the value of empathy in understanding them. From an interview she did with the Washington Post on her findings:
“What I expected was a self-centered people, but I found people who were nothing like that, quite the opposite. They were openhearted, they were communal. They were very eager to be known. They’d say, ‘Thanks for coming. We’re the flyover state, people don’t care about us, they don’t know who we are. They think we’re racist and homophobic and sexist and fat.’ … In some of them you sensed loss and a sense of being invisible and unappreciated and insulted. That liberals just think they’re rednecks. … They felt like a minority group.”
To all those who wondered about rural America after the election – and lord knows that we in the media have discussed this to death – the rural voter, like all others, is not a mean-spirited monolithic block. This is, like all big questions, complicated.
By the time my partner and I got called to help out in the kitchen, most of the crowd had circled through. I was plating up ham and green beans, which were running low, and Lee figured he better plan on a couple more big cans for next year.
I was focused on hearing the orders for meat – dark, white or ham? – when the guy in the corner in the baseball cap started singing. Jim, who was handing out the Styrofoam plates, began the chorus of “Hallelujah.”
I’ve always loved that gorgeous Leonard Cohen song, especially the verse that says:
Well, maybe there's a god above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
I walked over and asked Jim how he knew that song. Yeah, I’m guilty, too, of that snobbish belief that someone who lives in Shell Knob wouldn’t be familiar with a Leonard Cohen song. Turns out, Jim knew it because some country singer covers it.
But it helped me sum up the day, here at the beginning of the Trump era, thinking that no matter where we lived, many of us are reacting to someone we think got a bead on us before we even have our guns out.
The dinner was finished at 1 p.m. and everyone pitched in and helped clean up. Someone said they had served a couple hundred people.
“Evelyn said it was 237,” Lee said, “a little down from last year.”
The people who won the raffle got Kleenex boxes with colorful knitted covers, a granny-inspired décor I’ve seen on the back of many toilets in the Midwest. Kids were tossing them in the air and batting them back and forth. I don’t think the ladies who made them would appreciate that.
The woman who sat next to me said she had to hurry off, as she was headed up to her church to get ready for the Christmas Eve service.
Me? I went home humming “Hallelujah” and being grateful for mashed potatoes and Lee’s gravy. Bingo.