“How many people are coming to dinner tonight?” one asks.
“Oh, somewhere between seven and 70,” is often the reply.
Welcome to Plains, Georgia, on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not the easiest meal planning I’ve ever had to do, but when you’re cooking for the former leader of the free world, you have to be flexible (and prepared for anything).
I’ve had the honor of spending many a weekend cooking for President Jimmy Carter — “Mr. Jimmy” to me. The old boarding house across from the Plains depot was where everyone gathered. It’s not only where he first announced his candidacy for president, but it’s where Mr. Jimmy’s parents lived when they were first married. Mr. Jimmy writes in one of his books that he was conceived in that house. My friend Jill put a brass plate on the door of that particular room that reads “The Conception Room.” Mr. Jimmy loves it.
Most Saturday evenings, Mr. Jimmy and Mrs. Rosalynn arrived at the boarding house around 5:45. Let me stop here and clarify for the world: The former first lady’s name is pronounced “Rose-Lynn” not “Roz-lynn.” It might seem like a small detail, but it is important to her and, therefore, important to him. So, if you ever want to be invited back to dinner (or even in the first place), then it better be extremely important to you.
But I digress. The Carters would arrive 15 minutes early for supper. I say early because the meal would commence at precisely 6 p.m., and he wanted time to greet guests and still meet his self-imposed schedule.
Once, the CEO of a major credit card company was invited to supper. His security team — larger than Mr. Jimmy’s Secret Service detail, I might add — called to inform us he was delayed due to something or other. I relayed this to Mr. Jimmy, who looked at his watch and simply stated that the guy could eat when he managed to get here. He and Mrs. Rosalynn fixed their plates at the buffet, sat down, and began to eat. The guest finally arrived at 6:15 and was most surprised to find everyone seated and eating. Mr. Jimmy told him we were eating at 6 p.m.
Supper always began with a prayer. Mr. Jimmy would summon me from the kitchen because I tended to hide in there, preferring to let my food do the talking. But I always joined the prayer circle. Mr. Jimmy insisted everyone hold hands.
As long as I live, I will never forget the feel of his aged hand grasping mine as he prayed. I must confess, more than once, I peeked to watch him pray. Mr. Jimmy’s prayers were a casual conversation with God, less a formal entreaty to a higher power and more a casual conversation with an old friend. Now that I think about it, they are old friends.
Once, around Christmastime, we gathered in the hallway with an impressive array of famous people — each in awe of him and, in their minds, about to live their dream of hearing Jimmy Carter pray in person. To my horror, he squeezed my hand and asked me to say the blessing. I froze. They froze.
Their expectations of having one of the most famous men in the world bless their meal was about to be dashed by some blonde in an apron with a decidedly thick Southern accent. He looked at me and nodded in encouragement. I managed to stumble through it, but God only knows what I was actually babbling about (literally). When I finished, he squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek. He said, “I think God listens more when women speak.” He let go of my hand, grabbed a paper plate, and started serving himself from the buffet. I, on the other hand, stood frozen until my husband walked me back into the kitchen and splashed cold water on my face to snap me back to reality.
That is Mr. Jimmy. He insisted that we eat on paper plates. This china-, crystal-, and silver-loving hostess still shudders about that. But he insisted. His reasoning was that it was ridiculous for me to spend the night washing dishes when I’d already spent the day cooking.
One Sunday upon entering the house for the customary Sunday brunch, he chastised me, saying he missed me at Sunday School. I was exceptionally frazzled that morning, having fed close to 70 that weekend, and I snapped at him that “someone had to cook for all these people.” He looked at me with the wry, toothy smile that’s known the world over and said, “Okay, Michele. Today you can be Martha, but be Mary next time.” (For those of you not familiar with that Bible story, message me. I’ll give you one of Mr. Jimmy’s Sunday School lessons.)
As I write this, Mr. Jimmy is most likely having a conversation with God — an honest to … well, you know … conversation. I have no doubt that he is asking for peace and civility. He is asking for love and kindness to prevail. He is asking nothing for himself and everything for mankind.
Despite my best efforts to hold it together, tears are falling now as I remember this extraordinary man. I’m hearing his words repeated in my head: “I think God listens more when women speak.”
Mr. Jimmy, you keep praying. I promise to speak up more for the people who can’t speak for themselves. And I’ll always set a place for you at the table — precisely at 6 o’clock.
Atlanta resident Michele R. Dunn has been the “chief cook and bottle washer” for Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for over 20 years. Dunn says the Carters love Italian. Follow her on Instagram at @bewitched4.
We also invite you to share your thoughts and memories about President Carter and his family. You can do so via social media:
Read more on President Carter:
Jimmy Carter: From Plains to prominence
COMMENTARY: What Jimmy Carter taught me about being a public servant and reading a compass
Q & A: Americus Mayor Lee Kinnamon on Jimmy Carter: “… a giant man, who never lost his connection to this little place”
Chick-fil-A board chairman Dan Cathy reflects on Jimmy Carter’s ‘profound’ legacy
Jimmy Carter: A look at his Georgia
Header image: The author, Michele R. Dunn, stands next to President Jimmy Carter, with Mrs. Rosalynn Carter to her right and Dunn's husband, Wesley. (Photo provided by Michele Dunn)
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