History, food and community is what a Downeast bean supper is all about

Everyone likes a good meal and an opportunity for great conversation. Here in Downeast, Maine and pretty much across the state, it is easy to get both at the same time. You may even find yourself impacting a community by funding a cause, or supporting a family in need. The Maine bean supper is a mainstay throughout Maine, in towns large and small.

Beans were an important part of the Native American diet, and are often called the “poor man’s meat”, as they are rich in protein. In the northeast, beans were adopted from the Native Americans’ custom of cooking beans and maple syrup with bits of venison or fish. The locals substituted molasses and salt pork, and they quickly became a staple.

The bean supper has a true New England origin, which many believe started with the pilgrims who prepared enough food on Saturdays so they would not have to cook on the Sabbath. Baked beans and brown bread were prepared in a large quantity to be eaten that day and on Sunday. This explains another Maine custom, the eating of beans on Sunday mornings.

Across New England and especially right here in Maine, baked bean suppers are prepared and served in community places such as churches, social halls, granges and fire stations. Any place will do, all that is needed is a dedicated group of volunteers and hungry people.

Our family happened upon a supper when our kids were young. While driving through one of the small hamlets dotting the coast, we were looking for a place to get something to eat. The sign said “Beano” in large black letters. The questions from the backseat came quickly, “What’s a Beano?” followed shortly by, “Can we stop?” We did.

For some reason the word “bean” or “beano” draws laughter and giggles from young children. It must harken back to camp days when a busload of screaming kids would begin a sing-along about something being a musical fruit, and that you should eat your beans at every meal. With the laughter subsiding, we pulled in hoping for good food with a local flair. What we got was more than we anticipated.

For a couple of bucks each we entered and gathered in line for an array of food and plenty of nods and smiles. Quick reminders were all around of a social hall or gymnasium readying itself for a school dance. Only this dance is about good food, people, place and purpose.

As we sat down, we believed we were in the company of local people, but what we soon learned as we shared a large table with strangers is that we were not. Sure, there are plenty of locals serving the food and in attendance, but there were more people here for pretty much the same reason we were: traveling through the area or on vacation and looking for home-style food, along with some conversation and dessert. Did I mention dessert is always included?

The conversations run the gamut of weather, local news, best places to see, stories from locals about the area and growing up, and from others, on how they found this place and why they eventually decided to stay. Or you learn about a cause, and see the effect a community coming together can have on it and the people it will help. The talk is plentiful and genuine, and is reminiscent of days when families would sit together to talk about their day. This is sadly missing today. Too many of us are darting here or there and not taking the time to sit and come together, to share stories, to share each other. The supper brought all that back and much more. Today, we still talk about that first bean supper.

So the next time you find yourself driving through a Maine town, be sure to keep your eyes open for the roadside announcement of a bean supper. You will be treated to a Maine classic, which has become the heart of a centuries old New England tradition. It is a wonderful experience.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.