Within 10 minutes of opening two serving lines at Warren Baptist Church's kitchen, nearly 100 people are eating roast pork and corn bread with sides of peas and stewed tomatoes in the fellowship hall.
The ritual of the Wednesday-night church supper is under way.
Another 10 minutes, another 100 diners are served. A steady stream of people holding trays, looking for their friends or their children's friends, pours out of the kitchen. Most of the 560 seats are filled in about 35 minutes, with hardly a teenager in sight.
Instead, teens are hanging out in the snack bar, where they can pick up fare more to their taste - pizza, hamburgers and fries.
In an hour and 15 minutes, volunteers are breaking down food lines to start the cleanup. The ritual ends with most diners heading to other parts of the campus for Bible studies, discipleship classes or youth activities. A few linger in the hall waiting for the weekly prayer service.
On a typical Wednesday, volunteers serve 700 to 800 meals, including carry-outs. The food is home-style, child-friendly and cheap - $4 for adults and $2 or $3 for children.
"We almost have to do it," said Dr. David Fleming, the senior pastor. "Families don't have time to get home, fix supper and then come here (for classes)."
The kitchen does more than the weekly suppers. Church hostess Joan Gardner plans menus for events such as monthly luncheons for businesspeople and the annual Augusta Golf Breakfast, which was held Tuesday.
"I enjoy it and feel like it is a ministry in itself," said Mrs. Gardner, who started out in the church kitchen as a volunteer about 25 years ago. Suppers then averaged about 250 people.
The work intrigued her, and she realized it was something she wanted to do, she said.
She plans menus a month ahead. Most dishes and some desserts are made from scratch. Volunteers help with the prep work, lifting, cooking, stocking and cleaning. A special crew of volunteers fries chicken for first Wednesdays.
Judging from the attendance, fried chicken is Warren Baptist's favorite meal, said Mrs. Gardner, who uses her mother's recipes - multiplied by 100 - for the mac and cheese and the Southern-style corn bread dressing served at the church.
At home, she goes for simplicity, such as one-dish meals.
"I don't cook like I used to," she said.
AT FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH in North Augusta, the kitchen does chicken baked, fried and barbecued, dressed with mushrooms and gravies and in pot pies.
"We do as much chicken as we can think of," said Barbara Williams, who went to work eight years ago to help out a friend. She is now a kitchen manager.
The church serves about 200 to 250 diners weekly.
Three or four times a year, it serves breakfast for dinner: scrambled eggs and bacon, biscuits and gravy, hash browns and grits.
"The kids are crazy about grits," Ms. Williams said.
JANE TALBERT, A CHURCH hostess at First Baptist Church in Aiken, taught school for 11 years before she was asked to help out in the kitchen 20 years ago.
"They called me at school. If they kind of got everything together, could I get it served? And I did," she recalled. "Then they said, 'Could you do it one more week?'"
She never knew why they called her, though she suspects they knew she liked to cook.
"They were desperate to find somebody. There are not many who want to do that," Ms. Talbert said.
She relies on volunteers to help prepare and serve 160 to 180 dinners at First Baptist's weekly fellowships. When the church held a box supper for its bicentennial in September, she drafted her grown children and some of her grandchildren to batter and fry 500 chicken breasts.
The 500 potatoes they baked kept the chicken, green beans, apple cobbler and rolls warm until the people picked them up.
"It turned out good, but my children said, 'Don't do that again,'" she said.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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