Text by Jennie Tippett

I come from a family with deep Southern roots. In fact, we’ve traced our lines back at least 300 years. All of my ancestors on my mom’s side had between six and sixteen children. My mom herself is one of thirteen, no multiples. I have 22 blood-related first cousins.

Every year on July Fourth, we gather at Liberty Hill Baptist Church in their hometown, Clanton, Alabama. The fellowship hall at the church is the only place big enough to hold us. My Uncle Ricky brings over his enormous grill, the biggest I’ve ever seen that wasn’t in a barbecue joint. Believe me, the size is needed. Forty to fifty of us will show up this day. We all have hearty, Southern appetites.

We are a meat-eating bunch. Vegetarians need not apply. Piled onto this grill are slabs of ribs, Boston butt pork roasts from local school fundraisers, hot dogs, sausage, cheese-stuffed burger patties, chicken, and any other animal that has been caught on a deep-sea fishing trip or hunted and killed that year. All thirteen of the siblings grew up on a dairy farm so no part of any animal ever goes to waste. So along with the usual, there are pig ears, cheeks, and tails; beef tongue and liver; chicken feet and gizzards and other things I cannot identify but don’t want to ask.

While the men are grilling, the women ready the side dishes in the kitchen. There are at least three kinds of potato salad, three kinds of deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, turnip and/or collard greens, okra, corn on the cob, and some things we don’t have a name for but just threw together. The women here are also preparing meat for the grill and the soon-to-be buffet. Any meat that needs to be marinated swims in delicious sauces as it waits its turn. For some reason, there is an unspoken rule that no one can eat until it’s all done. Still, there are those of us who sneak a taste, proclaiming, “I’m just testing it for poison!”

The food is spread out along the two twenty-foot parallel islands in the kitchen. Everyone gathers in the dining room for announcements and blessings. Finally, we line up and start self-serving. There are so many of us that the first few through the line are usually finished with their meals by the time the last people can get in.

When people have gone in for seconds (and sometimes thirds or fourths), the dessert table becomes free game. Oh yes, we have dessert, too. That’s the whole point of the meal. While it’s not as varied as the entrée food, it’s still impressive: made-from-scratch chocolate cake, pecan and lemon pies, homemade cookies and peach or blueberry cobbler. We pile up our plates with a sampling of each.

Throughout the day, we gather around to tell stories, reminiscing on the ones who have passed on. It’s a great way to get to know the family, to grieve and cope with shared pain through laughter.

I cherish these reunions. For me, they are not only a feast for the stomach—they’re a feast for the soul.