When it comes to community supper, you can’t go wrong with this New England classic.
The public supper is a more than 200-year-old New England tradition that not only refuses to fade away, but is more popular than ever. On any given weekend in any given corner of the region, you are apt to find at least a couple of suppers, most of them fund-raisers for a worthy cause, listed in the newspaper or advertised on a large sign out in front of a local church hall, grange hall, Lion’s Club, or firehouse.
The drill for every public supper I have ever attended is the same, no matter the location. Guests seat themselves at long, family-style tables. When the hall is full and an anticipatory buzz fills the air, brigades of volunteers emerge from the kitchen to serve hot food.
There are “Strawberry Suppers” in June. Autumn brings “Hunter’s Suppers” serving rabbit, raccoon, and bear, and mostly-vegetable “Harvest Suppers.” In late winter, there are “Sugaring Suppers,” with a ham-and bean dinner followed with pitchers of hot maple syrup to pour over pans of packed snow. There are “Chicken and Turkey Suppers” because it’s a Saturday in the winter, and “Spaghetti Suppers” on most Friday nights. The “Peach Shortcake Supper” in Dummerston, Vermont, is the only one I know of, and there is one “Shad Supper” in Windsor, Connecticut, on a single special day in May.
In Maine, the “Bean Supper” prevails.
A typical menu for a bean supper goes like this: baked beans, of course, usually both large beans (yellow eyes or Jacob’s cattle) and small beans, such as pea beans; various other casseroles, including American chop suey, mac ’n’ cheese, or chili; coleslaw; pickles; and homemade breads, such as baking powder biscuits, steamed brown bread, or yeast rolls. For dessert, it’s usually pie, slices of which are often lined up as you enter the hall so you get to choose from apple or pumpkin or lemon sponge or graham cracker cream or chocolate custard, before you’ve even taken your seat.
If you’re lucky, the supper has been prepared by talented volunteer cooks. But it’s not just about the food. It’s also about the company. It’s about families, friends, neighbors, and strangers sharing stories, local news, and folk wisdom. As the tables are cleared and hot coffee is sipped, guests often linger for a mysteriously enchanted moment, silently savoring the pleasure of participating in this uniquely American shared experience.
Molasses-Baked Maine Yellow-Eyes
Yellow-eye beans are my favorite baking bean. Found primarily in Maine, yellow-eyes have a mellow, earthy flavor that persists through the long-simmering, and their texture is smooth and creamy while still holding its shape. Of course, you can use any number of other beans in this recipe, including soldier or Jacob’s cattle beans or Great Northern, or even smaller pea beans. This recipe is my tried-and-true formula and the beans come out perfect every time. Although both molasses and maple syrup are used as sweeteners, the dark flavor of molasses predominates. Ketchup is one traditional bean condiment, but these days I like them with tomato salsa, coleslaw, and brown bread or biscuits.
Makes 6 to 8 main course servings
- 1 pound dried yellow-eye or other similar medium-sized beans such as Great Northern, rinsed and picked over
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ⅓ cup molasses
- ¼ cup pure maple syrup
- ¼ cup cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
- ¼ pound salt pork scored up to, but not through, the rind
- 1 large onion, peeled and scored with a criss-cross through the root end
- Boiling water, if necessary
- Soak the beans in water to cover for at least 4 hours or overnight. Drain.
- In a large soup pot, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Add the beans and 1 teaspoon of the salt and return to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until the beans are just tender, 1 to 2 hours, depending on their size and age. Drain in a colander, discarding the cooking water.
- Preheat the oven to 325° F.
- Stir together the molasses, maple syrup, vinegar, mustard, ginger, and remaining salt in a 2½- to 3-quart casserole dish or bean pot. Add the beans and enough boiling water to cover by about ½-inch. Push the salt pork and onion into the beans. Cover the casserole with a lid or foil and bake for 3 hours. Check the water level every 45 minutes or so and, if it has cooked away, top off with more boiling water so that the beans remain soupy.
- Uncover, stir to bring the salt pork to the top of the beans, and cook 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, or until the sauce thickens and the salt pork browns. Serve directly from the bean pot, divvying up the salt pork among those who are partial to it.
Text and recipe adapted from Dishing Up® Maine © 2006 by Brooke Dojny. All rights reserved.