Cooking FOR THE Crowd
It’s 10:45 a.m. in the Elliott cabin at Salem Campground. Agnes Elliott has been cooking since 6 a.m. and she has yet to make several dishes.
She considered waking up closer to 4:30 a.m. to make a caramel cake. There’s never been a big Sunday lunch at camp without that tasty Elliott tradition, and the family that was going to bring the cake is ill and won’t make it.
She decided to catch an extra hour of sleep because the absence of that family and a few other relatives and friends leaves only 28 to feed, instead of the usual 40. Leftovers are good, but no need to overdo it.
Plus, there will still be peach cake and hello dollies, a baked concoction of graham crackers, flakes of coconut, butterscotch, chocolate chips and condensed milk.
The family cabins at Salem Campground are deceptively long; the Elliott’s stretches four bedrooms deep with a long common room, though only a half-kitchen.
When you have an extended family as large as the Elliott’s, a new person shows up every few minutes.
While Agnes prepares a dish, Tom walks into the cabin.
“Oh Tom! It’s so good to see you,” Agnes says with delight, and gives him a big hug.
He’s an unofficially adopted family member. The largest families always seem to be the ones most willing to embrace strangers into the pack. After all, what’s the difference between four more grandchildren among friends?
“People just come in all the time to get food,” said 13-year-old granddaughter Alyssa.
“If people pass by, we just say ‘Y’all come in and eat too,” Agnes added.
Tom and Agnes catch up on the family news. How are he and his girlfriend doing at college in Valdosta? Figured out why that rough patch happened? Yes, Gran remembers that. Gran knows nearly everything.
Yes, the guys are talking again after a tiff. Yes, her pair of beautiful, intelligent Georgia Tech granddaughters, Anna and Lucy, are dating the same young men as last year. Yes, that’s a good thing.
Agnes may have married into the Elliott clan, but she’s the matron of the family now. Though the annual Salem Campmeeting generally produces the largest crowds, her home in central Atlanta has always been grand central station. Birthdays, holidays, impromptu parties. Gran’s got her family covered.
She’s so used to cooking for large gatherings that she really doesn’t think about it much. What’s in your famous candied sweet potatoes? What makes them so syrupy?
“ There’s no recipe, I just know how much for how many people. How much sugar, how much water. Add potatoes, margarine,” she replies. “ I’ve tried to do a cookbook for the grandchildren. I have to go back and measure and take notes.”
“ You don’t find those pota- toes at other places,” said her son Drew, who’s tabbed them as his favorite dish.
One recipe the family has written down is the delicious, but difficult-to-perfect, caramel cake. ( Check out the box for the recipe.)
“ I’ve only figured out the caramel cake so far,” Drew said.
Agnes only had sons, Drew and Tom Jr, so the daughtersin-law, Kathy and Kelly, help out when they can.
“ My wife does well with the ( Thanksgiving) dressing,” Drew said, noting another of the family’s famous dishes.
Cooking for such a large crowd does require planning. The sweet potatoes and desserts are started Saturday afternoon for Sunday, while the black eyed peas, green beans and creamed corn are morning projects. Ditto, the macaroni and cheese.
Agnes used to fry her own chicken, but that’s one of those Southern traditions that’s been largely phased out. Besides, she would need a kitchen three times this size and Publix seems to really know its stuff. Buy five boxes, heap them up on a large platter. No one complains.
The rolls and fruit salad are the finishing touches, and by the time the Sunday service lets out, the food is nearly ready.
“ I’m really not that good of a cook,” Agnes says in front of her family. They’re having none of it.
“ Oh honey, please,” said Alyssa, voice acting in her best Southern accent.
“ Yes, she is,” Drew assures everyone.
The proof, as they say, is the pudding, or hello dollies, as it were. Those are the favorites of 11-year-old granddaughter Grace.
A cousin who couldn’t make it to Sunday’s feast was sure to send word that he was looking for a make up meal at Thanksgiving.
As for Agnes, she’s worn out from cooking and not really that hungry by the time she sits down to eat, but she doesn’t care.
“ It gives me pleasure that everyone enjoys it. The children are always saying they can’t wait to come and eat,” Agnes said. “ That’s what I love.”
If you have hankering for some homemade vegetable soup, come out to the camp Wednesday. It’s the light blue cabin with the porch swing and hammock. Or just ask around; the Elliotts have been there for six generations.
Agnes Elliott prepares lunch for her family — a total of 28 hungry diners. She wakes up at 6 a.m. to have lunch prepared, and while she insists she's not much of a cook, her family says that they can't wait to eat her meals.
One set of Elliotts pose for a family photo at Salem Campground, another family tradition. (L-r) Drew, Anna, Grace, Alyssa and Kathy.