It’s a church potluck dinner maxim: No matter how many deviled eggs people bring, no matter how they’re flavored or topped, there will never be any left over.
It’s a truism you can count on all over the South, from second Sunday feasts at Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, to Caring Wednesday at Maranatha Baptist in Plains, Georgia, and everywhere in between.
Jan Williams is President Jimmy Carter’s favorite deviled egg maker. With a drill instructor’s directness and a Southern banker’s charm, she recites rules and regulations to some 12,000 visitors annually, who come to Maranatha from around the world for a Sunday school lesson by the former President. While waiting for the doors to open, Jan even schools Northerners in the proper way to deal with gnats, which, she says, is blowing them away through the side of the mouth, not swatting with the hands.
Jan sets the rules with a friendly firmness at Maranatha. When President Carter enters the sanctuary to teach Sunday school class, she says, there will be no applause and no standing.
“We’re here to worship God; we’re not here to worship President Carter, but we’re awfully glad to have him,” says the former schoolteacher turned bank official and tour guide.
When he’s not overseeing elections in a tumultuous country, building Habitat for Humanity homes on a South Dakota Indian reservation, or relaxing on a river in Russia, Carter teaches lessons from The Bible to visitors from all over the world at this simple, unassuming brick church, with 132 official members, in his southwest Georgia hometown.
On the day we attended services there, we captured seats in the center of the very front pew. A Secret Service agent told us we had lucked out, since no tour buses had arrived. Carter stood about three feet away, dressed in a turquoise-studded bolo tie. He opened the class by asking, jokingly, “Do we have any visitors today?”
He then scanned the sanctuary to determine what states and foreign countries were represented.
“If I ever quit being a Baptist, I’d probably be a Mennonite,” he told one family of that faith.
He asked if there were any members of the clergy or missionaries in attendance and called on a medical missionary from Clemson, South Carolina, to open the class with a prayer.
Teaching Sunday school is as much a Carter family tradition as tending peanuts. The former President’s father, Earl, instructed the junior boys at Plains Baptist Church. Jimmy Carter taught children of officers and enlisted men stationed at Annapolis, Maryland, when he was a Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. When his schedule allowed it during his presidency, he taught the adult class a few Sundays a year at Washington’s First Baptist Church.
Teaching isn’t his only role at Maranatha, though. He oversees the grounds and mows the grass with a riding lawn mower, the only motorized vehicle the Secret Service will allow him to drive. Carter turned the church’s four collection plates on a wood lathe, and Rosalynn Carter regularly cleans up the interior of the building.
“During Caring Wednesday at Maranatha, we bring covered dishes and sit down at the same table to talk about normal things, not war and peace but rather how many fish we caught that day or how many peanuts we shelled,” Jan says. “Mr. Carter likes my deviled eggs and always asks me which are mine. I tell him they’re on the green plate.”
Easy to remember for Carter, since green was the color he used in his campaign advertising. The plate, a wedding present Jan received in 1971, has the design of a rooster in the middle and the familiar oval indentations. When Carter was running for president the first time, Jan stuffed hundreds of eggs for a covered dish dinner out at the Pond House, near Plains, where Carter’s mother Miss Lillian loved to fish. At $5,000 for a plate of fried chicken, ham, roast beef, potato salad, and Jan’s eggs, the outdoor, covered dish feast raised $1 million for Carter’s campaign.
Here’s Jan’s deviled egg procedure: Pour cold water into a pan and add a dozen eggs. Then place the pan on the stove and bring the water to a boil. Boil 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the eggs sit 5-10 minutes. Then pour the hot water off and pour cold water on. Peel the eggs. Cut them in half. Put the yolks in a bowl and the whites in a green plate. Mash up the yolks with a fork. Add mayonnaise and mustard and cubed sweet pickles along with a little salt and black pepper. Mix well. If it’s not moist enough, add more mayonnaise or mustard. Spoon the stuffing with a teaspoon into the whites.
“I usually have some yellow left over,” she adds. “I enjoy eating that. And if any of the whites tear up, I eat those, too.”
Jan says her filling is a medium yellow, since she loves mustard and uses the plain, ballpark variety. And never would she consider even a dusting of paprika.
“If I did that, people would accuse me of dressing up my eggs too much.”
Even for a former President.
Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”