New England Church Suppers
Comfort Food, Reasonable Prices,
Northern New England Culture at its Finest
By Polly Tafrate
“Please pass.” "Want more?” “Save your fork for dessert,” were the only words
heard above the clamor of silverware dinging against plates. Is this a scene from
a Thanksgiving dinner, you ask? You’re not even close. We were enjoying a
feast at a church supper in Maine.
It’s only recently we’ve become church supper fanatics. My first recollection of
church suppers goes back to my teenage years when I was dragged to a bean
supper by my parents. They weren’t fooling about it being a bean supper either.
That was the first course, the main course -- the only course. Long tables filled
with crocks of baked beans. Period. It’s taken years for that memory to fade.
You may think that being summer residents of a coastal Maine cottage for over
sixty years would qualify us as insiders. Nope, to the natives, we remain,
"people from away." Now our family is the front line. The cottage is ours. We
hope to make our neighbors forget we live in a large city nine months of the
Church Suppers Season Begins in the Summer
We notice posters for upcoming church suppers popping up as soon as the
summer season starts. Often they’re advertised as bean suppers rather than
church suppers. Last summer I became curious why baked beans play such an
important role in these suppers.
My research took me back to the Pilgrims. Baked beans were a favorite among
them. Since Pilgrim women were forbidden to cook on the Sabbath, the beans
could be baked on Saturday and kept warm in the brick ovens until Sunday.
Beans are mentioned again during Revolutionary times. The soldier’s toughing
it out at Valley Forge looked forward to baked beans to add to their scanty
rations. Boston proudly claims to be the first to slow cook beans with molasses
during colonial days. Lest we not forget, Massachusetts was once a part of
Maine, so we can accept that fact.
Common to all baked bean recipes are molasses, mustard, salt and pepper.
Then the ‘secret’ ingredients are added … onions, Worcestershire sauce, salt
pork, vinegar, curry, rum … as many variations as there are cooks.
Good Regional Cooking, at a Reasonable Price
Times have changed, church suppers have not. Sure they’ve expanded their
menus and extended welcome mats. Now everyone and anyone are encouraged
to attend. A few offer take-out.
The fact remains, church suppers offer some of the best regional cooking at
modest prices. These family style dinners are served on a first come, first served
basis. The price is usually about $7.00 or $8.00 for all you can eat. Some offer a
The church’s denomination isn’t what’s important; it’s what’s on the menu that
counts. Talk about comfort foods … meatloaf, fish chowder, smoked ham and
bean, turkey, roast beef, chicken potpie, homemade rolls with real butter (sigh!).
Common to most are homemade mashed potatoes and the biggest selection of
tasty pies this side of a truck stop. The only salads I’ve ever seen offered were
potato and coleslaw. There’s no confusion about the beverage — it’s coffee, no
choice of decaf or regular — just coffee. Water’s an option.
Red dogs, natural casing hot dogs fortified with brilliant red food coloring, are
popular in Maine. If you’re lucky you’ll find a ‘bean-hole-bean’ supper. This is a
descriptive title as the beans are baked in a pit dug in the ground. The pit is
lined with rocks and wood. Beans are placed in fifteen or twenty gallon pots
with tight fitting lids. They’re lowered into the pits not to be opened again for
A Non-Profit Endeavor
Church suppers are money makers. Their proceeds often help a needy family.
Most of the food is donated, the workers are volunteers. The pies, rolls and
some salads are made in individual’s homes while everything else is prepared
in the church kitchens.
Another fund raiser is the church cookbook. If they have one, they’ll be selling it
at their dinners.
For years the suppers were the women’s domain. Not any more. Men and teens
have been recruited as willing workers. The pecking order, or who does what,
was explained to me by a veteran volunteer. One starts at the bottom, the table
level, pouring beverages, busing, laying down clean white butcher paper,
It is only through attrition that one graduates to the coveted kitchen positions.
At one supper I peeked behind the kitchen’s swinging doors. A gentleman,
immersed in suds up to his elbows, was hard at work washing dishes (no paper
products here!); another was drying them, a third stirring pots on the stove.
Several women were refilling platters, gravy boats and roll baskets.
When you attend a church supper you can’t help but be in awe of the efficient
way they’re run. They don’t always run seamlessly though.
A turkey dinner for 300 stands out as grey-hair-producing moment: It was mid-
afternoon. Upon entering the kitchen one smelled the roasting turkeys. At the
sinks workers were peeling potatoes for mashing; in the social hall the long
tables were being set. Pies and rolls were arriving as was an unexpected
summer storm. It knocked out power lines. Yankee ingenuity saved the day, or
rather the supper. Anyone within a radius of 50 miles owning a gas stove or
propane grill was recruited. That evening the kitchen was illuminated by
lanterns, the social hall by candles. The dinner was delicious!
No matter how short your time in Maine, take my advice, look for a Church
Supper, carve time out and go. If you leave hungry it’s your own fault!
Q&A for First Timers at a Church Supper
How do you find where church suppers are being held?
Look at community bulletin boards or local papers for announcements. Often
they’re listed under "events."
How do you know which are the good suppers?
The menus are printed in the paper or bulletin. Ask around. We’ve traveled
over 100 miles to attend one with an outstanding reputation.
The paper says the supper starts at 5:00. Isn’t that awfully early?
Not if you want good food. At some suppers you’ll be seated once someone is
finished. Others have early/late sittings. The ads will state this. Don’t be
surprised to see people lined up well before the doors open. It’s not to get the
closest parking spaces either. We made the mistake once of arriving close to the
end. “Foods all gone. Sorry!”
May I pay with a credit card?
No, cash only. No tipping. No reservations.