Beans on Saturday night was once a New England tradition. You could count on it in my family. And I remember how my dad liked to have cold beans on bread for breakfast the next morning. Some families may still honor the tradition. They certainly do in my community — North Gorham, Maine.
The third Saturday of every month from May to October, the United Church of Christ at North Gorham hosts a bean supper. Three kinds of beans. Kidney, yellow eyes, and pea beans. Not out of a can, not baked in the oven in a bean pot. These are bean hole beans.
The beans are soaked overnight and parboiled the next afternoon in big enamel kettles. When the beans start to get soft, a “special sauce” is added. It’s prepared with a mixture of sugar, brown sugar, salt, pepper, dry mustard, molasses, chopped onion and garlic and pork or salt pork. When they’re all ready, the beans are ladled into three large stainless steel pots, which are each covered with tin foil and a lid.
Outside, a fire has been burning in a brick-lined rectangular pit for a few hours and the coals are glowing hot. The bean filled pots are wheeled out on a special cart. They’re carefully lowered into the pit and covered with a specially made insulated door. They try to get them into the ground by about 6:00 the night before the supper. Check out the video to see how it’s done.
All night long, the beans simmer in their juices. Early the next morning, the crew opens the pit to check that the beans are cooking as they should. My husband is the one who prepares them so he’s always there to do a taste test. Once in a while, he will add a small amount of salt, molasses or water to one of the kettles.
And he always brings me a cupful for breakfast in bed. Not once have they been anything but delicious. Even so, they continue cooking in the pit all day long and don’t come out of the ground until just before the crowds pour in for the first seating at 4:30.
The bean hole beans are pretty special — people come from all over to experience them. That’s right, to experience them, but there are some other items on the menu that also make their mouths water.
Home made pies
Steamed hot dogs
Home made potato salad and cole slaw
Jan Bell, who makes sure there’s plenty of salad on the tables, has been helping with the bean suppers for years. She says the brown bread recipe is at least 100 years old, passed down from two, maybe more, generations of a North Gorham family. You’ll find the recipe at the end of this post.
“It’s easy,” she says. “They’re steamed like folks always used to do. You’d have your beans in the oven so you’d put your brown bread on the stove and steam it. Some people just baked their bread, but I think when you bite into it it’s a little drier if it’s baked. Brown bread has a molasses flavor. All of our grandmothers cooked with molasses. During the war, molasses was easier to get than sugar by far.”
Patrick Flynn, on the left, says brown bread is his favorite thing to eat at the bean suppers. “The fact that it’s still warm and it’s the perfect weight,” he proclaimed. “Butter on top — it’s delicious!”
Daniel Contremi, sitting across from Patrick, had never tried brown bread before. He took a bite. The verdict: “I like it,” he declared. “I never tested bread that tastes like molasses.”
The man serving the table is John Labrecque. His dad, John Sr. started the North Gorham bean hole bean supper tradition in the early 1940s.
“He went to a supper up in Norway, Maine and came back and experimented,” he told me. “Probably the first one he did at home with potato chip cans in a hole in the ground. With the old way, you had to heat up the ground and get up two or three times in the night to warm it up. With bricks lining the pit, it’s easier because you just start a fire and get them hot. It’s the heat from the bricks that cooks the beans.”
All we’ve been talking about is the food, but it’s also the company that keeps people coming back for more.“Been coming as long as I can remember,” said Karl Hartwell. “It’s the best food you can get anywhere and the people you meet here are always interesting and the stories always good. And the pies are always incredibly good.”
“I keep coming back because I don’t have to cook,” added Karl’s wife Jo. “And it’s the best!”
North Gorham Brown Bread Recipe
(For the North Gorham suppers, the bread is steamed in specially made stainless steel cans, but most people use coffee cans. This recipe makes one can.)
- 1 cup whole-wheat flour
- 1 cup white flour
- 1 cup corn meal
- 1 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda (dissolved in 2 cups water)
- Mix all together.
- Fill greased can.
- Cover with aluminum foil.
- Put the can on a metal rack in the bottom of a cooking pot.
- Pour about two cups of water around the can.
- Cover and cook on high for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
- Remove can from pot and let sit for about 10 minutes.
- Tip the can upside down to remove the bread.
- Slice and serve warm.
If you’re in the neighborhood and you’d like to taste some of the best, most authentic bean hole beans ever, there’s a supper at the United Church of Christ in North Gorham (4 Standish Neck Road) the third Saturday of each month from May to October. As a matter of fact, there’s one this Saturday, September 16, 2017. It goes from 4:30 to 6:00.