Maine churches have been dishing up hearty, home-cooked meals in a tradition that spans decadesby Lynn Ascrizzi
[Feature article from the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Green & Healthy Maine]
It was Saturday night, and in the busy kitchen at John Street Methodist Church of Camden, the hearty aroma of homemade baked beans, hot casseroles, fresh salads and pies wafted through the air.
The savory blend drifted into the nearby, well-lit dining area, creating an atmosphere of convivial expectation among the roughly 65 visitors seated at long rows of pre-set tables in the church’s spacious cafeteria.
“We serve family style, the first Saturday of every month,” said Arlene Day, co-chair of the church’s bean suppers, held year-round. “Most people are from the community; some from church. We get regular summer visitors, even people visiting Camden in the fall to see the foliage,” she said. That evening, it was obvious that folks were happy to be part of the laid-back sociability fostered by a traditional, Maine bean supper.
In the orderly kitchen, church volunteer Priscilla Hart expertly stirred a delicious mess of yellow-eye beans that simmered in a big roasting pan, releasing a cloud of mouthwatering, molasses-flavored steam.
“Everything is homemade,” Arlene said, of the casseroles and other “fixin’s” that aim to bulwark the beans and fill the belly. “Cole slaw, ham rollups, molded and tossed salads, corn and clam casseroles, vegetable and chicken-and-rice casseroles—and baked beans. And, there’s coffee, tea or punch.”
Supper goers, she noted, first pick their dessert from among a wide selection of sliced, homemade pie—mixed berry, key lime, pumpkin, mincemeat, blueberry and more. Volunteer servers bring dishes to the tables and keep cups filled with beverages. Except for the beans, which are made in the church kitchen, volunteers do all their cooking at home and bring their designated dishes to the supper.
Maine’s classic bean suppers have become the anchor and heart of a centuries-old tradition that, legend has it, may have started with the Pilgrims who made baked beans and brown bread the night before, so as not to work on the Sabbath.Whatever the bean supper’s origin, it’s undeniably true that cheap and plentiful dried beans (not canned!) such as Jacob’s cattle, yellow-eye, soldier, pea (or navy) and red kidney beans, thrive on Maine and New England soil. Slow-baked with molasses and salt pork, the dish has become a Yankee favorite at community-spirited suppers long before “eat local” became an environmental buzz word and “community-building” became a core objective among folks seeking to mend the often raggedy threads of our social fabric.
“We have a whole lot of beans. Nothing goes to waste,” Day said. Any unserved, leftover beans or casserole fare gets boxed up and sold to willing supper goers, to take home. The same goes with unclaimed slices of pie.
About eight kitchen volunteers were helping out that evening, including ticket takers. Volunteers wore cranberry-red cotton aprons emblazoned with the church’s name. The kitchen was abuzz with activity, but veteran cooks knew exactly what to do and when to do it. Church member Judy McKearney was stationed by the stove, filling serving dishes with macaroni and cheese while coworkers Grace Annis and Maryjane Gautesen handed volunteers salads, and other casserole fare, through kitchen take-out windows.
“We decided to serve people at the tables. It was much more convenient than buffet style,” Day said.
The mood in the kitchen was one of warm camaraderie. From years of experience, volunteers knew that many hands make light work, and the banter was good-natured. Longtime church member John Hart, for instance, who was single-handedly manning the kitchen sink, patiently washed plate after plate. When asked how long he planned to keep on washing dishes at church bean suppers, he quipped: “I’m going to do the dishes ‘till I get ’em done!’”
The John Street church is just one of dozens of mainstream, faith-based groups clustered along Maine’s winding coastline that hold regular public suppers. In almost all cases, funds raised by these modestly priced suppers go to support outreach programs unique to each organization, such as food pantries, emergency shelters, senior programs, other charitable ministries and even the local fire department.
Thus, by attending such suppers, not only do we help ourselves to heaps of good food dished up by seasoned home cooks, but we get to help out with local community building, as well. And, as an extra bonus, we find precious time to greet old friends and make new ones. “I like the smiling faces—the welcoming committee. You’re helping out the church, each time you come,” said Bill Pettee, an artist who specializes in marine pastels. His son, Chris, 17, came with him. “We live right down the street. My wife had to work. She left us a real nice dinner, but we’ll save that for tomorrow,” said Pettee, a member of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Camden.
Pride’s Corner Congregational Church in Westbrook has been dishing up bean suppers along with a lot of community spirit, for 36 years. “We may be one of the oldest bean suppers in the area,” said church coordinator Judene Dyer. “We use the same recipes every month and have used them since the 1970s. The one thing that does change is some of the pies … like more berry [pies] in season or more apple [pies] in the fall.”
Church members make the beans, the macaroni and cheese casseroles and cole slaw, at the church. “Bread is always from a local bakery. Pies are made in the homes and brought to church. We get our beans from Auburn,” Dyer said. At their Chicken Pie Dinner held in October, they use locally grown squash and locally purchased haddock for their chowders.
There are two bean supper settings: The first at 4:30 p.m.; the second, at 6 p.m. Supper-goers can start purchasing tickets at 4 p.m., on the day of the supper.
All are welcome at Pride’s Corner church events, including visitors and folks from other denominations. “I’ve had people come from Bridgton and New Hampshire and other distances. Some drive over an hour to attend. They all have a good time, see other people they’ve gotten to know and make more friends here,” Dyer said.
At a recent bean supper, “only 2 percent of the attendees were church members,” she added. But a small army—about 40 members of the church family—pitch in to work on the suppers, which raise about $15,000 annually. Some of the service projects the church helps support by such fundraising events are: the Westbrook Food Pantry, Heifer International, The Good Samaritan Fund, Hospice of Southern Maine and the American Cancer Society. “Being part of the community is a huge part of our mission,” she said.
IT’S NOT JUST BEANS
Up and down the coast, the going rate for bean suppers ranges from $7 to $8 for adults. Generally, children are about half price. But, menus vary. The Cornerstone United Methodist Church of Saco, for instance, is famous for its homemade roast beef suppers, held from 5–6:30 p.m., the first Saturday of the month, May through November.
“It’s shockingly good,” confessed church secretary Samantha Nassif. “There’s a committee of fabulous cooks. You can have the beef rare to well done. There’s strawberry shortcake for dessert. Supper price is $9 for adults, $6.50 for children. Come no earlier than 4:30 p.m.,” she said.
Other events to watch for are special, one-time food celebrations, such as the annual lobster supper to be held this year at 5 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 18, at Edgecomb United Church of Christ. (Prices will be announced; reservations suggested.) And, the Eliot United Methodist Church in Eliot, will hold its annual, public turkey supper, with all the fixin’s, from 4 p.m. “until sold out,” Saturday, Oct. 20. Price is $9 for adults and $3 for children.
And, at this year’s Annual Greek Heritage Festival in Saco, to be held July 13, 14 and 15, cooks from St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church will bless your palate with authentic Greek cuisine. Food is served from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 pm., Sunday. “Prices vary for dinner, depending upon what Greek dish you pick, such as shish kabob, dolmathes (rice-filled grape leaves), pastichio, moussaka, and more,” said church secretary Stephanie Koutroulis.
Oh, and did we mention dessert? “We make 20,000 pieces of pastries,” Koutroulis said, such as baklava and galaktoboureko, a custard-filled filo dough with honey syrup.
Moreover, beginning at 11 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 17, the Greek church will hold its annual St. Fotini Bazaar luncheon, serving such gourmet dishes such as skewered shrimp over pilaf, roasted chicken and spanakopita. And, you won’t want to miss the pastries.
TOWARD A GREEN FOOD VISION
At John Street United Methodist Church, some volunteers who grow vegetable gardens supplement their home-cooked, bean supper offerings with seasonal, fresh produce like lettuce, greens, herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, and the like.
For instance, church member Mary Dearborn, whose specialty is baking pies and bread pudding, had picked and frozen the strawberries, raspberries and blueberries that went into her fruit pie, served that night. “I grow organically. There’s nothing in my garden that is poison. No spray,” she said. She also shops for fresh veggies and plants at Spear Farm & Greenhouse of Warren and Green Thumb of West Rockport. “I like to buy local,” she said.
A similar green wave of thought can be found at other churches that have gardening parishioners. But some coastal-area churches make a concerted effort to support local market farmers and fishermen. In particular, the First Universalist Church in Rockland has made the support of local food part of a thriving ministry. The church’s Green Sanctuary team helped to organize the state’s first community supported fishery (CSF) and published “Maine Shrimp Cookbook” (Down East Books, 2005).
The group had been inspired to create a CSF because of its successful community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which helped to promote two young, local farmers who today run Hatchet Cove Farm, a family-run business in Warren. In spring, community and church members who purchase a CSA share help the farm pay for seeds and supplies and other seasonal, startup costs. In exchange, members get a weekly selection of vegetables grown on the farm.
Hatchet Cove Farm delivers their produce at the church foyer. CSA participants pick up their produce at 11 a.m., every Sunday. “Members also can receive surplus vegetables to put aside for winter and have the option to add on cheese, bread, mushrooms, eggs, chicken, pork and beef shares,” according to the farm web site: www.hatchetcovefarm.com/csa.
The Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church in Cape Elizabeth has regular bean suppers from September to May. But on the first Saturday in October, they hold a special Harvest Supper.
“We use that supper to make a special effort to buy ingredients grown in Maine,” said Steve Bither, event organizer. “For example, we’ve gotten navy beans near Bangor and kidney beans in Fryeburg. For meat dishes, we went to a farmer’s market in Portland. We try not to have JELL-O pies, but instead, apple and blueberry made from produce grown in Maine. For our cornbread, we’ve used corn meal grown in Aroostook County. All eggs are from local hens, and all green salads are locally grown, including the cole slaw.”
The Cape Elizabeth area has about 10 farms that sell produce locally, he noted. “A lot of them sell at the farmers’ market held at Deering Oaks Park in Portland,” he said. The market, held from 7 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturday, from April through late November, has more than 35 participating Maine farmers.
“It is a wonderful experience, like going to a country fair,” Bither said.
For a list of community suppahs in Southern and Midcoast Maine, please click here.