Cook­ing FOR THE Crowd

The Covington News - - Front page - Gabriel Khouli gkhouli@cov­news.com

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.

Gabriel Khouli / The Cov­ing­ton News

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.

Gabriel Khouli / The Cov­ing­ton News

One set of El­liotts pose for a fam­ily photo at Salem Camp­ground, an­other fam­ily tra­di­tion. (L-r) Drew, Anna, Grace, Alyssa and Kathy.

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