SEPTEMBER 26, 2010
I suppose each area of the country has its own version of a community meal that involves a day-long, slow cooking of the food. I had heard of clambakes in New England and pig roasts in the South, but I had never heard of a bean hole supper (or “suppah,” as they would say here) until I moved to Maine. For four years I had noticed announcements in the weekly paper for bean suppers, saying that they included things like coleslaw, brown bread, red-skinned hot dogs, and American chop suey (whatever that is, I wondered). I had never gone to one, though, until this past weekend, when I saw a notice board outside the Blue Point Congregational Church, just down the road from me, for an authentic bean hole supper.
I learned that not all bean suppers are cooked in bean holes. More often than not, the beans are soaked and cooked in the usual way in big pots on a stovetop or in slow cookers. Many area churches have revived the tradition of the bean hole, however, in which pots are placed on coals overnight in a hole dug in the ground. According to Marshall Goodwin, a retired dentist who spearheaded Blue Point Church’s bean hole revival 20 years ago, bean holes are part of the lumberjack history in Maine. They provided an inexpensive, convenient meal in camps and on river drives. The cook would head down river on a raft ahead of the jacks. He didn’t have an oven, of course, so he would devise a makeshift one by digging a hole and lining it with burning wood. He’d cook beans all day in it, and then would wait for the hungry lumbermen to arrive for supper.
By reading some articles on the Internet, I found that bean holes may pre-date the logging era. It’s thought that early Native Americans in Maine (possibly the Penobscots) cooked in holes in the ground for hundreds of years and that early settlers learned to make a special baked bean dish from them.
On Friday afternoon I found Dr. Goodwin, along with Shawn Brennan, Mike Wood, Richard Sterling, Arthur Leddy, and John Bauer, manning the fire pit behind the church. They had started burning wooden pallets in the hole at about 3 p.m. Brennan said that they would burn about 12 pallets down to coals over the course of five hours. The temperature inside the brick-lined hole gets up to about 1200 degrees Farenheit. The coals are then raked out and the bean pots lowered in. The hole is covered with an old metal door that they got from the American Legion Hall, carpets, and a layer of dirt.
“Come on back later,” the men said. “Several of our church members will come tonight for dinner and fellowship before we set the beans in the hole.” Well, who could pass up an invitation like that? As darkness fell and a full moon rose overhead, I found about 20 congregants gathered behind the church. They were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over the coals as the final pallets were being added to the fire. Before the fire pit was raked, Brennan took pots of pea beans and kidney beans out of the back of his car, added a mixture of onion, salt port and dark molasses, and placed them over propane heaters to parboil them.
By 8:30 both the fire hole and the beans were ready to go. Everyone gathered around as the heavy pots were lugged from the parking lot. When they were successfully lowered into the pit, the women, led by Nancy Landsman, began clapping, singing an improvised song of “The beans are in the hole,” and swaying back and forth to their own music while the men covered over the pit. It was theater and orchestra all in one.
“Come back at 8 tomorrow morning,” Mike Wood called to me as I headed to my car. “You’ll get to see us test the beans.” Twelve hours later found a small group of us back at the bean hole. Wood and John Bauer uncovered the hole. Shawn Brennan reached into the subterranean oven to take out a few samples of the beans for tasting and to see if he needed to add water to the pots to keep them from drying out. Arthur Leddy licked his lips and said he could jump in the hole and eat all the beans right then, without waiting for suppertime to roll around. When the beans passed inspection, the hole was re-covered, and the pots were left to simmer until 4 p.m.
A line stretched through the church basement as the food was set out. Baked beans, hot dogs, mac and cheese, coleslaw, brown bread, corn relish, biscuits, and an array of home-baked pies: apple, cherry, blueberry, and pumpkin. The modest fee of $6 for dinner helps to support the church, and a portion is donated to local charitable groups like the food pantry and Project Grace. While many of the diners were regulars at the suppers, there were a number of first-timers, just like me. One was Jane Maroon, along with her husband, Bill, from Delaware, who stopped to photograph the beans while she was being served. I chatted with couples from New Hampshire and Connecticut, as well.
Back in the kitchen as the crowd eventually thinned out, Shawn Brennan was getting to catch his breath. He had been at this process for more than 24 hours. I was beginning to understand why Crock Pots were invented. What a lot of work goes into a bean hole supper! “How did you like it?” Brennan asked. “You know,” he said, “the churches around here all get competitive about their bean suppers. But I knew we were on the right track a few years ago when a man came up to me after dinner and said our kidney beans were better than the Methodists’.”