Ever since I was a tot, my arteries have surged this time of year with the byproducts of the chicken dinners of southeastern Indiana. As a kid, they provided an excuse for a "Sunday drive." Since moving into the area 17 years ago with my wife and kids, our knowledge and fondness for the various dinners has only increased (as has my weight.) Amazingly, and sadly, this summer's chicken dinner schedule may be the last--forever. Because of church consolidations and mergers announced this year by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the best-of-the-best dinners will likely not return next year and that's a terrible shame.
The St. Martin's picnic in Yorkville is the one I've attended the longest because of my relatives who are active in the parish. I remember going to this one as a kid, when they handed out "fish pond" gifts--blue butcher's paper-wrapped gifts for the boys, pink for girls--from the window of the long-since demolished schoolhouse. Their chicken dinner was always the best and had the most Cincinnati "draw"...although in recent years it has been diminished somewhat by switching from "family style" to "buffet style" service. Still, I'd put its chicken among the best. The next dinner, this Sunday (July 28th), might be the last as the parish will be merged with three others. However, the parish is appealing the archdiocese's decision.
St. Paul's in New Alsace always follows St. Martin's by two weeks, this summer falling on August 11. St. Paul's has evolved into my favorite chicken dinner because they still serve family style--that is: big bowls of food are placed on the table and diners can take as much as they want. The line can be a little long getting into St. Paul's and the gym can be a little hot, but the food is fresh and the chicken very good. Parking is also pretty good at this one. St. Paul's is also merging and even though the church was built in 1837 (making it the oldest continuously used church in the area) and was visited by John Hunt Morgan during the Civil War, it is slated to be closed which is terrible news from a historical aspect, too.
St. Pius, in rural Ripley County, has its festival and dinner on August 18th. This is the one to go to if you want a traditional, old fashioned church festival. Located in a very rural area of farmland (and right down the road where we live), this festival, with its traditional games, is like stepping back in time. The chicken here is sold in whole quarter chunks, so you get a lot. Rare is the visit when we didn't walk out with a bag of leftover chicken because they give you so much. But the real treasure here is the old fashioned, home-made gravy and mashed potatoes. The best! Although it, too, dates back to the late 19th Century, St. Pius is slated to close and merge with another parish, even though its parishioners are active and finances are excellent.
The last of the "big 4" actually comes on October 14th and doesn't feature chicken at all. St. Mary's of the Rock is located in rural Franklin County between Sunman and Brookville. Instead of chicken, they have a turkey and stuffing meal that rivals anything your mom might have made for Thanksgiving. The turkey is good, but the stuffing is the best, the cranberry sauce is real and pies are homemade. St. Mary's has a historic grotto carved out of the hillside behind the church. The parish is also slated to close at the end of the year, which is very sad. Their fall festival, which usually takes place as the leaves are changing colors, is worth a visit just because the drive getting there.
These four festivals have been an important part of our family weekends over the years and I'm so blessed to have been able to share them with my children. Unfortunately, circumstances might bring an end to all four traditions. If you've ever heard of the famous Indiana chicken dinners and thought about visiting, this might be your last opportunity. I'm sure we'll be attending all four and, at the risk of gluttony, I expect to savor the memories, tastes and aromas of these fading community traditions.