Pauline pushed her way through the swinging doors with a steaming tray of kale in her hands. She carefully lined up the buffet as customers – no, call them neighbors – showed up for dinner.
Even at 69, Pauline has a youthful way about her. Wearing a sundress and padding in and out of the kitchen in her bare feet, she greeted her guests in the same way a cousin welcomes a cousin into their home on a Sunday afternoon.
Only this was not Pauline’s home. This was actually the small church that she grew up attending in the tiny community of Samsula, literally an agricultural road in Central Florida 25 minutes south of Daytona Beach, an hour north of Orlando, and a short imaginary gentle horse trot from a manicured golf-course community in New Smyrna Beach.
The church was going to be torn down because termites had unleashed a relentless taste for this place of worship in a tiny community of Slovenian farmers and ranchers. Pauline used to cook for friends and neighbors in her house next to where the church now sits, but three years ago, her house burned to the ground when she walked a family member to the nearby elementary school and forgot that a frying pan of bacon was cooking on her stove.
With the help of friends and neighbors, her house was rebuilt, but it was not large enough for Pauline to cook like she enjoys cooking. So when she learned that her childhood church was going to meet the bulldozers, she bought it, moved it across the street and across the cow pasture from her new home. It’s close enough that if somebody wants hot sauce on their food and she has run out, she can send her boyfriend across the pasture to her house to retrieve a bottle.
Of course, there are countless home-cooking kind of restaurants, but Pauline’s kitchen -- which is not advertised, does not have a website and officially, does not have a name -- is one of those special places that only the family and neighbors know about and selectively bring others.
She serves a buffet on most Thursday nights and breakfast on most Sundays. On a recent Sunday, it was obvious that word had leaked out to the wintering snowbirds as cars with license plates from Ontario, Massachusetts and New York lined the church’s gravel parking lot.
Pauline’s food is plenty good. On “Slovenian Night,” she offered kielbasa and homemade kraut, beef tenderloin, German potato salad, several other entrees and kale from her garden. She also served a cream of broccoli soup with broccoli she picked from her garden, and homegrown lettuce in her salads. Her homemade apple strudel with ice cream was good enough to qualify as sin on a plate.
But as tasty as it is, it’s not the food at Pauline’s that makes this visit to the old church so special. It’s the fact that this spot is where family, friends and neighbors happily and gratefully spend time together. It’s where her little cousins come to celebrate their birthdays and where, during one of those celebrations, Pauline came through the swinging kitchen doors with a homemade sheet cake in her hands decorated with small plastic horses.
It’s where old men come to dinner with grandsons who can afford to buy them dinner. It’s where friends and neighbors talk across the room to each other and ask about the family, the farm, the cattle and the mud hole that filled up in the road with the last rainstorm.
It’s where teenage girls talk about their horses and teenage boys compare details about their ATVs. It’s where plans are made for weddings, anniversaries, reunions and funerals. It’s where memories fill a room and future plans are laid out on tables decorated with Easter bunnies. It’s where old china plates are filled with buffet items and where cut-crystal dishes of homemade preserves appear with steaming homemade biscuits at Sunday brunch.
“See that room over there?” said Pauline, pointing across what used to be the tiny sanctuary. “That was my Sunday school room when I was a kid. When I heard they were going to tear this place down, I knew I had to buy the church. I knew I could cook here.”
As the Thursday evening dinner crowd thinned out, Pauline strolled the sanctuary/dining area with a beer in hand. She asked her guests if they got enough to eat and if they liked their food. She thanked them for coming over. She asked questions and listened for answers.
She also talked about needing to work on the family tree that she hangs on one wall of the old sanctuary, adding “there have been additions to the family ” and that she needed to get it finished by the next family reunion this summer.
Walking out into a cool spring night, her customers/family members gathered on the front porch talking. Nobody snuck glances at cell phones. Nobody texted or snapped “selfies.” These were people who had known each other their entire lives who were still engaged with the every-day concerns of their family and neighbors.
Talk spilled into the still night air and laughter was genuine, comfortable, easy. As the adults talked, teenage girls climbed over the pasture fence and played with some goats.
Somewhere down the road, a cow uttered a low bellow and a peacock shrieked, probably as it climbed into a tree with the setting sun. Loose gravel turned and crunched as cars rolled out of the driveway.
Driving home, I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows and smelled the country air of Samsula. People go to bed early here and rise with the sun. They have horses and cows to feed, sod to mow and cut, feed & seed stores to run, and vegetables to grow.
This is a tiny spot on the map and if you don’t know it’s here, it’s easy to drive right on by. And if you do know where to find Samsula and you ever encounter the forgotten feel of community, it’s amazing to recall that something that was normal 40 to 50 years ago, still exists here as a matter of daily routine. People here still care, still talk to each other and still listen.
No wonder Pauline bought the old church. No wonder she loves nothing more than to share the food her family grows.
No wonder her sanctuary is a familiar place that has welcomed friends, family and even strangers for decades. And no wonder we all consider ourselves lucky to be neighbors, even if we don’t share blood.
- Lisa D. Mickey, April 10, 2014