The Rev. Rose Thomas is a born-again cook. She hungers after spiritual food, ministering to her people at the Independent Church of God on 11th and M Streets NW. Otherwise she is cooking temporal food for the church's almost weekly suppers.
Reverend Rose never wastes a second as she whirls through a Sunday at the church. The 42-year-old pastor assumed her position from her mother, Bishop Sally Avery, who founded the small congregation in a storefront church at 5th and L Streets NW. [Bishop Avery died last year.] Five years ago the church moved to its present location on 11th Street across from Maurice Electric.
Two-thirds of the church members are related to the pastor: two brothers, three sisters, 20 nieces and nephews. Each Sunday the tiny pentecostal church is filled with Thomas' parishioners. The church resounds with gospel singing and music from piano, organ, drums and tambourines. Small children in their Sunday best sit on the nearest knee, clapping, tapping and singing with their parents. "Little people," says Thomas, "wander in off the street. If we were big, there wouldn't be enough spirit for these street people. Maybe we can help them."
When the service ends, tables are brought out, chairs pushed up, tablecloths spread and out comes the feast from the tiny kitchen. "Gracious Father," prays Thomas, "we are thankful for your beingwith us. Please consecrate the food that it may heal us. Thank you for this food we are about to receive, the nourishment of all bodies. Amen."
With six church members baking, frying and simmering in their own homes, Reverend Rose organizes the potluck dinners, heating the food on a small stove in the back of the church. "I helped my mother cook every Saturday for church suppers," the pastor said. "We have to cook Saturdays. It's the only day my people don't work."
The standard Southern dishes are all there baked ham with cloves and pineapples, chitterlings, collard greens, string beans, coleslaw, fried chicken, potato salads, buttermilk biscuits, corn pudding and, of course, sweet potato pies. sometimes these busy women use Shake 'n Bake or muffin mixes, but mostly they prepare their food from scratch.
While the adults chat and eat, the children run around outside playing with cousins and friends. Later they help throw away the paper plates, sweep up and reset the chairs in rows before the 3:30 afternoon service commences.
Rejuvenated in church on Sundays, Thomas finds added energy to help people during the week. Her weekdays begin at 5:00 a.m. when she gets up to do laundry and prepare food and medicine for the two elderly sick people whom she houses. "These people have been helping folks all their lives. It's their turn now," says Thomas of her ailing tenants, Ruth Richardson and Willie Horne.
By 7 the pastor is at the State Department , where she works in the mailroom. Her supervisor calls the Thomas' potential "unlimited" and says she just doesn't know how to "slow down." Thomas recently became the first woman licensed to drive the diplomatic mail truck to Dulles Airport.
Back home Thomas has dinner to prepare for the invalids, her new husband Elder Billy Bess, her 20-year-old daughter Cynthia and six-year-old grandson Paul.
Barefoot, her head covered in a black scarf, Thomas sings gospel songs as she cooks [if she is not talking on the constantly ringing telephone.]
Working in her white and yellow kitchen with cupboards filled with canned goods, Thomas mused on the past. "I remember when there was nothing in my cupboards. Then I feel the miracle of full cupboards," she said.
In those earlier days Thomas and her former husband were in Milwaukee evangelizing. "Suddenly he left me and I was alone with two small children," she recalled. and then she began to sing: "I don't know what I'd do without the Lord."
Thomas wastes nothing when she cooks. Often she starts with a ham [actually usually a shoulder "because it's cheaper"], boiling and then baking it. The water used for the boiling then becomes the stock in which to simmer green beans. Small pieces of shoulder turn up as flavorings for almost everything, a slice added to cabbage or even black-eyed peas.
No Shake 'n Bake for Thomas. She doesn't even use a paper bag to make her fried chicken, just dips it in flour and lots of pepper and fries it in an inch of hot oil, covering the pan for 10 to 12 minutes, until the chicken is brown. Then she turns it and, finally, drains it on a paper bag, crisp and spicy.
To watch Thomas make buttermilk biscuits makes the act of buying the ready-made variety a joke. It takes less time for her to sift the flour, baking powder, soda and salt, mix with buttermilk and cut in the shortening to form a dough than it does for a shopper to find the frozen or canned biscuits in a supermarket and wait in line to pay for them. Baked in a hot oven, Thomas' biscuits taste delicious, especially with the butter that one of her elder guests splurged on with his food stamp money.
When Thomas bakes sweet potato pies she clears off her dining room table and rolls out a few balls of dough on waxed paper. "My mother would have used lard for the crust but I prefer Crisco. It's lighter. You have to beat out the strings from the potatoes." No food processor or blender in this cooking -- "They're too expensive. I can't even imagine using them."
With any leftover filling and pie crust the pastor makes a delicious sweet potato cobbler. She would never make only one sweet potato or any one pie for that matter.
"Growing up in a family with 14 brothers and sisters I learned early about mass production and how to use up every bit of food," she said.
And then there is her corn pudding, her chitterlings, her candied yams . . . Thomas can go on for hours and hours just singing and cooking. In fact, it seems Reverend Rose can cook just about anything so long as it involves feeding lots of people, singing as she goes along, "Where the feast of the Lord is going on . . ." PORK-FLAVORED GREEN BEANS Serves 4-6 2 pounds fresh string beans 2 tablespoons bacon fat 1 quart water or enough to cover ham Salt and pepper to taste.
1. Wash and snip green beans.
2. Place bacon fat in a large casserole. Add beans and cover with ham broth or water. Cook slowly, covered about 1 hour, adding water if necessary. Then test for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Let rest for several hours.
3. Before serving reheat for one half-hour. BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
Makes about 1 dozen 2 cups all purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup buttermilk 1 1/2 tablespoon Crisco or other shortening.
1. Sift the flour with the baking powder, salt and baking soda. Combine with the milk and cut in the shortening, working into a soft dough. You may have to add more flour.
2. Take some dough the size of a small plum and shape it into a ball. Then flatten it out and place into a shiny aluminum foil pie tin. Repeat with the remaining dough and place each flattened ball next to the other in the plate.
3. Bake in a 450-degree oven, 10 to 15 minutes or until slightly golden on top. Do not worry, the biscuits will overlap and can easily be pulled away before smothering them in butter. CORN PUDDING Serves 6-8 8 ears of corn or enought to make 4 cups when cut from the cob or 2 16-ounce cans cream-style corn 2 eggs, well beaten 1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon flavoring 1 teaspoon cinnamon 2 heaping tablespoons flour 1/2 green pepper, chopped 2 1/2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
1. If using fresh corn, cook in the top of a double boiler over hot water for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add to remaining ingredients. 2. If using canned corn, combine as is with eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, flour, green pepper, butter or margarine and sugar.
3. Place in a greased 2-quart casserole and bake in a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes or until firm. SWEET POTATO PIE Makes 2 nine-inch pies Crust: 2 2/3 cups sifted all purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup Crisco, lard or other shortening 6 tablespoons cold water Filling: 4 sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds) 1 stick unsalted butter 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon flavoring 4 eggs, separated 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 cup evaporated milk or heavy cream
1. Boil the potatoes, covered, until soft, about an hour. Remove and when manageable, peel.
2. Meanwhile, make the crust by combining the flour and salt and, using your hands, blend in the shortening. Sprinkle with water and blend in.Form two balls and set aside for a few minutes.
3. On a well-floured board, roll dough out into two circles and place in nine-inch pie pans, trim, flute with the tines of a fork and refrigerate until ready.
4. Using a potato masher or a fork mash the potatoes and measure 4 cups of pulp. Then, beat with an electric mixer. Discard any strings which become attached to the beaters. Otherwise, put the pulp through a sieve or food mill to get rid of the strings.
5. Cream the butter until soft. Add the sugar until well blended. Combine with the sweet potatoes. Add the vanilla, egg yolks, cinnamon, nutmeg and milk or cream. Adjust seasoning to taste.
6. Beat the egg whites until foamy and fold in.
7. Pour the filling into the pie crusts and bake for 10 minutes at a preheated 425-degree oven and for 40 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees. m