Once a year, memories of biting into handheld pies with crisp, flaky crusts and sugary apricot filling lure several hundred hungry pilgrims to a small church in rural East Texas for a spring potluck known as Decoration Day.
The tradition at College Mound United Methodist Church dates to 1886, when the objective was more practical: honoring the dear departed by spring cleaning the adjacent cemetery. Every family answered the call to arms with rakes and yard tools. Riding in horse-drawn wagons, they also brought lunch baskets to sustain the hard work.
That was then. This is now. With so many other things to do and places to be, what keeps family and friends coming back from as far away as New York City, Chicago and Denver, and as close as the nearby Dallas area, about 40 miles west on I-20? All comers relish visions of long tables laden with ham, mac and cheese, fried chicken, cheesy grits, potato salad and, of course, the desserts.
Decoration Day is about food and community spirit. Friends and family with College Mound roots yearn all year long for an apricot fried pie made from Nawasa Hamilton’s handwritten recipe. Decoration Day regulars’ dessert dreams foretell Maud Shepherd’s Cuppa, Cuppa, Cuppa Cobbler. The beverage of choice is Lime Tea. That’s basically sweet tea—really sweet tea— laced with lime juice, another signature recipe for the occasion.
Though family reunions and fresh flowers for the graves is the mission, the expansive covered dish lunch, particularly certain special dishes, is the lure. Decoration Day goes deep, says Debbie Bozeman-Zook of Dallas. “A rich tradition like this makes you belong. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a tradition like this, if you’ve got it in you, you come.”
“As a kid, I came to play and eat fried chicken. As I get older, I come to celebrate the lives of those who passed.” —Clint Crews
Like the others who come, she’s got it in her, having been part of College Mound Decoration Day most of her 60ish years since growing up in Terrell. In recent years, after retiring as an artists’ rep and marketing professional, Debbie’s been the keeper of the flame as College Mound Cemetery Association president, working to see that Decoration Day will continue for another 133 years.
This year, Natalie Knabach came from Chicago, as she has several times since relocating from North Texas 15 years ago. “There’s always plenty of food,” she says. “No one leaves there hungry, ever.” Her favorites include her late grandmother’s recipe for brownies with vanilla glaze and Frito chili pie. “I’ve always loved it,” she says. Her Hogan-Liston family is among the pioneers of College Mound, founded circa 1840.
These days, one particular family still brings College Mound Decoration Day’s signature dessert, Nawasa Hamilton’s fried pies. That’s her son, Don Hamilton, and his wife, Ronda. Don recalls that his mother got up at 4 a.m. on Decoration Day to roll, fill and fry three dozen fried pies.
Ronda makes a similar batch, her once-a-year nod. She couldn’t possibly make enough to give one to every Decoration Day pilgrim. All the other dishes are laid out on the Hamilton Family table but the paper-towel-lined box of pies goes under the table for doling out to family and special friends.
They, along with others, also bring buckets of fried chicken and store-bought hams. No one makes those at home these days. Families also bring homemade covered dishes with sides such as scalloped potatoes, corn casserole, multiple variations of “funeral (i.e. pudding and fluff) salads,” and especially desserts, many using recipes handed down from one generation to the next.
Decoration Day is no time to show off with a fancy dish from The Food Network. The simpler, the more traditional, the better. Debbie and her sisters, i.e. “the Bozeman girls”—Peggy Morse of Florence and Lynne Crews of Boerne—divvy up their family’s assignments. Peggy is the family’s designated maker of Lime Tea because “she has the touch,” says Debbie. Other dishes on their family table include black-eyed peas, green bean casserole, brisket, potato salad (made from their mother’s recipes) and baked beans. And of course, Cuppa, Cuppa, Cuppa Cobbler. Debbie freezes peaches every summer for her Decoration Day cobbler.
There’s an undercurrent of friendly competition. While cruising the tables sampling another version of baked beans, families compare the dishes on their table to those on other families’ tables, of course favoring their own with smug satisfaction.
Jim Tankersley of Thousand Oaks, CA, recalls eating outside under “beautiful oak trees” as a young boy. Now the picnic is held in a pavilion. That’s a modern concession to the inconvenience of spring rain or unseasonal cold and high winds. Other aspects, such as Lime Tea, remain the same. “I always drank way too much, way too sweet, College Mound iced tea. That’s what we called it,” Jim remembered.
Decoration Day is a tradition in rural Texas and the South, a regional countrified Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday of veneration. Many African-American churches have a similar institution called Homecoming. In today’s world, the community reunion and potluck aspects dwarf the cemetery maintenance, usually handled by professionals as part of perpetual care.
The church and the cemetery are about all that remains of the old College Mound community, a bucolic unincorporated hamlet between the small towns of Terrell and Kaufman. Soaring pecan trees and rolling meadows carpeted with verdant spring grasses line the two-lane road that winds its way to College Mound. Back in the day, a number of families lived and farmed nearby. The white frame Methodist church was the center of community life.
It may well be food that keeps College Mound Decoration Day going. Natalie Knabach laments that her now adult children haven’t gotten to come as often as she did growing up, especially since relocating. She recalled telling friends in Chicago about the event in Texas near her hometown. “They were just fascinated that we do it,” said Natalie, noting their surprised admiration “that people come from all over to celebrate family and have a good, old Texas meal.”
If your family was part of the College Mound community as was Jim Tankersley’s, “Decoration Day was pretty much a sacred time for our family.” He, like others, wants to see the tradition continue but understands that time and distance take their tolls. Because he was a Naval aviator when his children were young, the family moved often. He recalled a conversation with his daughter one Decoration Day. “I told Jennifer I was sorry she had to move so many times and had not had the day-to-day consistent influence of those loving, but very stern, people in Terrell.”
Clint Crews, Debbie’s nephew, brought his young family from Denver, as he does every couple of years. “I’ve been coming more since Inie (his grandmother Inace Howie) passed. As a kid, I came to play and eat fried chicken. As I get older, I come to celebrate the lives of those who passed,” he said with a nod to the nearby cemetery.
“133rd anniversaries don’t happen very often,” notes Debbie referring to this year’s Decoration Day milestone. “So I gladly accepted the job of carrying the torch for a while. At the end of the day, I’m just stepping up for my turn.”
Memories, fried pies and chicken will continue to fuel Decoration Days to come.