Open Table: soul food for strangers

Published 9:12 am Thursday, January 3, 2019

Using the talents with which they were blessed, Louis and Susan Utsey have opened their home, shared food, and engaged in fellowship with strangers on Christmas Day for more than 25 years.

I asked the couple to reflect on how their “open table” began and what inspired them to invite and entertain a group of folks they didn’t know.

They gave God all the glory.

With the Utsey’s family living out of state, they didn’t have any kinfolk living close by.  Not being able to share the holiday with family prompted the couple to reach out to other people who were going to be alone at home.

Their open table is not only on Christmas day, though. The couple hosts Easter meals, Thanksgiving meals, and spur of the moment meals. The theme is an extension of their faith, giving God the glory and the praise for what He’s enabled them to do.

Sharing how they first came up with the idea of holding an open table at the holidays, Susan explained: “Louis’s spiritual gift is hospitality. He’s always loved to have people in his home.”

Louis came from a large family, so he was comfortable being around older people and was no stranger to entertaining guests. Obviously, Susan was blessed with a gift of hospitality, too. Louis smiled and chimed in, “She wasn’t always that way – God changed her.” 

Having a father who was an alcoholic, Susan’s family didn’t have guests in their home when she was a child. And Susan assumed entertaining meant she’d need to have a spotless house with everything in perfect order – and complicated further by lots of decorations and a big, fancy centerpiece on the table and such.

But while in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) training for teaching leadership, Susan realized it’s not about perfection or decorating – it’s all about engaging with people. Keeping it simple and authentic is the focus.

“For us, it happens to be around the table. We leave our home like it is – it’s real, and we live here.”

Louis added, “The only way the world changes for the better is for Christ to spread his kingdom out. We encourage people and share the magnificence of Christ.”

But there was a time when Louis wanted nothing to do with God. When he was 12, his father was teaching Sunday school, and while teaching, his dad had a massive heart attack and died. That was a turning point for the boy who wasn’t a Christian at the time.

“Surprisingly, my parents never talked to me about saving grace,” Louis said.

The couple’s faith went from a seed to a stronghold when  Susan was recovering from encephalitis, Louis brought some information home from BSF to share with his wife. Even though she was recovering and thought it was too much to read, Susan read it anyway. And she hasn’t stopped reading about the Lord since.

As God nudges each of us in our daily lives, Susan and Louis were moved one Sunday by their pastor’s sermon on discipleship and hospitality. He asked the congregation to be more prayerful about being a host or hostess in their own homes.Their pastor encouraged the couple to step forward to make a commitment,

Louis quoted the author of Hebrews 13:25 (NIV) who concluded his epistle with these personal words, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

“God brought this to us. You can’t really say no to these things. You realize God’s doing it,” explained Susan.

Their open table is conducive to sharing and fellowship – regardless of any differences that might exist.

“We’ve stepped into some opportunities to have Christians and non-Christians at our open table. We don’t make any distinction, and with many people, we don’t know whether they are believers or not. But we make them feel welcome whether they are or not.”   

Louis and Susan admit they are both sinners and recognize that everyone needs Jesus whether they’re saved or not.

Louis said what drives them is a lyric from a Sara Groves song, “Lord, how is it between You and me?”

Their desire is to encourage everyone to answer that quote for themselves, with an understanding according to God’s word, of how important it is to be right with God.

We can rejoice in the Grace God provides through Jesus and His promise found in John 3:18 (NIV) that reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Years ago at one of their first open tables, Louis invited a Russian couple to come on Christmas Day. Later, that invitation led to the miraculous answering of an 18-year prayer request – when a church offered to let BSF use their place of worship to offer a day class.

But the miracle didn’t stop there. Susan was given the opportunity to lead the BSF class, and she was inspired to lead for 14 years.

“God brought that,” Susan explained. “It was amazing how the Lord opened the door for that.”

There are no coincidences in life – there is what’s called divine providence over our lives. The doctrine of divine providence means God will supply what is needed; He will give sustenance or support.

We can all do good things, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with God’s plan. We have to listen to God and strive to discern His will in all our choices and actions. One must be prayerful to hear His answer. God can do the impossible when you’re yielding to Him.

Years ago when Louis and Susan moved here from Hickory, they picked out a new home in Advance. Not surprisingly, God had His hand in that decision, too. That week in BSF, the key scripture was Ephesians 2:10 (NIV) which read, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Those words weren’t luck, fate, chance, or coincidence.

God uses each one of us for His purposes. Susan shared with me a profound quote spoken by her minister, Dr. Rich Powell, of Grace Bible Church.

“God is not so much in the business of using ‘superpeople’ as He is about pouring His grace on surrendered people.

It’s not always convenient for Susan and Louis to open their home, but they look forward to it. Having so many folks for dinner can be a challenge, but Susan’s well organized – getting plenty of help from Louis, too.   She plans well in advance, and there’s little confusion until the company arrives – as they prefer to gather in the heart of their home, the kitchen.

One gift that God provided this year was a new farm table for the breakfast nook. The couple traveled to Sparta to talk with a man about building a handmade table that Susan designed  for the purpose of gaining additional seating for their open table gatherings. Usually at least 20 or more folks can be served in their home, but there’s room for 10 more outside on the deck if the weather cooperates.

The menus vary each year as the couple thinks of their own favorite holiday dishes and considers different flavors and textures – the chefs call it “mouthfeel.”   None of the recipes are really fancy – just simple eating.

On choosing the menu, Louis shared, “You don’t have to be a chef to be able to cook a good meal. We just start talking about our favorite meats and decide on one and then pick the sides that enhance the meat.”

The dessert has to be the same quality as the meal. The intent is to give guests a good Southern food experience mixed with genuine and warm fellowship. Guests often tell hilarious stories that get everyone at the table laughing so hard their sides begin to hurt.

“If they come to eat, it’s wonderful to see people – from age 30-90 and from different nationalities – warm up to each other at the table,” added Susan.

Often, the conversation will just naturally take its own course. People wear name tags, there’s no assigned seating and can sit wherever they feel like sitting. The guests even jump in and help clean up, take out the trash, and load the dishwasher.

One thing the Utseys do is ask for prayer requests when having a conversation before or after the meal. When spiritual questions come up, they are answered with the Word.  The bible’s opened, the Holy Spirit comes to mind, and the couple is blessed with the right words to answer the questions their guests seek to understand.   

God often ministers to people through other people at the table. Guests share personal and private information and deep, personal struggles – and come to feel a sense of support and often a feeling of renewed faith.

At an open table, a guest’s personal belief and privacy are always respected. Having made new friends, many guests stay at their home for hours past the meal. The open table takes away the loneliness for some. Christmas is a very sad time of year for many people. Being invited is an encouragement to some.

“Hosting an open table strengthens our faith. The whole point is God gets the glory for whatever we do. When we have people in our home for hospitality, it lifts us up and edifies.” Susan explained.  “When the last person leaves, we look around and think, wow, look what God has done here today.”

If you are interested in entertaining and sharing your gifts with cooking, one way to begin is to keep it small. Begin with just a few couples. You can start with a potluck and ask others to bring a dish. Many people like to contribute. This is an easy and fun way you can share your talent.

Be sensitive to the needs of people, and you’ll know who God wants you to entertain. Learn how to recognize people, and be tuned into those in your path – the people to whom you can show God’s goodness.

Jesus’s last command was that we would love one another as He has loved us. For many people, the open table gives them a sense of love, comfort, and belonging, and for Christians, we’re a family of God – we sense it in each other. People feel welcome when invited, knowing they’re not an afterthought.

Some folks are so used to take out food; they rarely get a home-cooked meal. The couple provides Chinet paper plates, tin foil, and plastic wrap so guests can take leftovers home with them. They go home with full plates of food.

“Usually, there’s no food left – the entire turkey was gone at Thanksgiving,” said Louis. “We have a set amount of food and trust the Lord to provide the meal and feed everyone who’s coming. But, if we have to, we’ll pull out some hotdogs.”

If you are interested in participating in a weekly Bible Study, contact Susan Utsey at 336 998-6412 or 336 407-9288. Bible Studies are held at her home in Advance on Thursdays from 4-5:15 pm. All you need to bring is your bible, or one will be provided for you.

Louis and Susan Utsey share their open table recipes – a smorgasbord of good eats compiled from the recipes friends, cookbooks, newsprint, and cooking shows.


Two days before: Soak 3 handfuls of peach wood in water for 2 days.

When ready to roast, allow meat to come to room temperature.

½ tsp. of tarragon

2 tsp. of Hawaiian Sea Salt

Mix tarragon and sea salt well, and apply to all sides of roast.  Set up the grill to smoke with water-soaked peach wood, and place a water bath below the grill surface.  Start the grill and adjust the temp to 325 degrees. Place roast on a roasting rack on the cooking grate. Check the water bath to ensure water is maintained at ½ beginning volume. Cook to internal temp of 160 degrees at the middle of the roast.

Remove, platter, cover with foil for 20 minutes, and enjoy!


One Hundred Years of Florence Cooking, Junior League of Florence SC, 1971

8-12 halved, boneless chicken breasts

8-12 slices of bacon

1 small jar Hormel dried beef

1 can cream of mushroom soup

1 cup sour cream

3 Tbsp. chopped, fresh parsley

Roll chicken breasts and wrap with bacon strip.  Set aside. In mixing bowl, pour a small amount of boiling water over dried beef. Let stand 5 minutes, then drain.  Place beef in the bottom of a baking dish. In a bowl, mix together soup, sour cream, and parsley. Place chicken over beef, and pour sour cream mixture over all.  Bake uncovered for three hours at 250 degrees.  You can use chicken breast strips if you prefer smaller servings of meat; adjust the bacon accordingly. Serves 12.


1 stick butter

1 chopped, medium Vidalia onion

1 cup uncooked rice

2 cups Campbell’s beef consommé soup

1 small carton sliced, fresh mushrooms

4 Tbsp. chopped, fresh parsley

2 Tbsp. chopped, fresh celery herb or stalk leaves

In a saucepan, brown the chopped onion in butter. Set aside. In a bowl, combine rice, consommé, browned butter and onions, mushrooms, and herbs. Pour into casserole dish, cover, and cook at 325 degrees for one 1 hour and 15 minutes.



Line a cookie sheet with foil. Wash and dry fresh asparagus, cutting off tough ends opposite the tips.  Arrange on baking sheet in single layer.  Sprinkle with olive oil, pepper, a small amount of sea salt.  Broil a few minutes until browned.

Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese, if desired, before serving


4 cups cooked, mashed, fresh yellow and zucchini squash

1 grated, medium carrot

1 finely chopped medium Vidalia onion

1 (2 oz.) jar pimento strips

1 (10.5 oz.) can cream of chicken soup

1 cup sour cream

1 ¾ cups grated, sharp cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

7 Tbsp. melted, salted butter

½ pkg. herb-seasoned stuffing

Fresh herbs, parsley, or celery (optional)

Combine first 8 ingredients and set aside. Combine butter and stuffing mix. Spread a thin layer of stuffing in bottom of a 9×13-inch casserole. Put squash mixture in casserole, and top with remainder of stuffing. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.


Tea Time at the Masters, Junior League of Augusta, GA, 1977

2 (3 oz.) pkgs. strawberry gelatin (not sugar-free)

2 cups boiling water

2 (10 oz.) pkgs., non-drained, frozen strawberries (Harris Teeter)

1 ½ cups drained, crushed pineapple

2 large, sliced bananas

1 cup sour cream

1 cup chopped pecans

Dissolve gelatin in boiling water in large bowl. Add strawberries, pineapple, and bananas. Stir well.  Pour half of the mixture into a 3-quart casserole. Chill until firm in refrigerator.  While this is chilling, in a bowl, mix together sour cream and nuts.  Remove chilled gelatin mixture. Spread the sour cream mixture over the chilled gelatin mixture.  Cover with the remaining gelatin mixture that is at room temperature.  Chill and serve cold.  Do not prepare more than one day ahead because bananas will darken. Colorful for Christmas and delicious year round. Serves 10-12.


8-10 small, redskin potatoes

3 Tbsp. salted butter

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt and pepper

2 ½ cups whole milk

½ cup grated, cheddar or Colby-Jack cheese

1 small, thinly sliced, Vidalia onion

Fresh chopped parsley

Wash potatoes. Peel, but don’t wash them again as the starch is needed to thicken this recipe. Slice thinly and set aside. In a saucepan, place the butter. Blend in flour, salt, and pepper over low heat, constantly stirring until smooth, bubbly. Gradually add milk, ½ cup at a time. Heat to boiling. Boil and stir about one minute. Add cheese and parsley. Arrange potatoes in a 2-quart casserole. Then layer the onions. Pour sauce on top. Optional: dot with butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 degrees for an additional 10 minutes. Cover to prevent over browning if necessary.


The High Museum of Art Recipe Collection, Atlanta GA, 1981

1 Duncan Hines Gingerbread mix

Make gingerbread using a prepared mix.


¼ cup of sugar

1 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 cup warm water

2 Tbsp. salted butter

½ tsp. freshly grated lemon rind

1 ½ Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1/8 tsp. salt

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and water, and stir in a double boiler over hot water until thickened.  Remove from heat and stir in butter, lemon rind, fresh lemon juice, and salt.  The recipe suggests serving the sauce warm, but I prefer it chilled over the warm bread.



Recipe shared by a dear Sunday school friend, Lucretia Pruett

1 cup sugar

½ stick softened, salted butter

3 eggs

1 cup whole milk

2 cups coconut

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 deep-dish pie shell

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in milk, coconut, and vanilla extract. Pour into pie shell, and bake one hour or until set.


Chef Jean Claude’s Recipes for Living, 2009

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/3 cup sugar

½ stick melted, unsalted butter

¼ cup finely chopped and toasted walnuts

6 large egg yolks

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

4 Tbsp. grated lime zest

2 (14 oz.) cans of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk

1 cup fresh key lime juice or freshly squeezed lime juice

1 cup heavy cream

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

¼ cup coarsely chopped and toasted walnuts

1 Tbsp. confectioner’s sugar

For the crust, mix together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, butter, and walnuts. Combine well. Press evenly in a 9-inch glass pie pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes.

For the filling, reduce oven temp to 325 degrees. Remove the zest from the whole limes. Then cut the limes in half, and squeeze out the juice and strain to remove the pits. Put aside. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks, vanilla extract, and lime zest together for 2 minutes. Slowly add condensed milk to egg mixture. Add the lime juice and whisk well to blend. Pour filling into crust and bake in a 325-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Cool and refrigerate 4 hours.

For the topping, pour the heavy cream into a clean bowl. Add the vanilla extract and whisk until firm. Top the pie with the whipped cream. Add walnuts, sprinkle with sugar, and serve. Makes one 9-inch pie. 6-8 servings.

Notes: Chef Jean Claude, now deceased, was the wonderful French chef at The Cove, The Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, NC where Bible seminars are held year-round, and participants relish outstanding meals prepared onsite. Jean Claude published a cookbook of his all-time favorites. This pie was one of the best-selling desserts at his Yesterday’s Restaurant in Key West. Florida for over 25 years. I’ve enjoyed it at The Cove many times.