I never liked church suppers.
I went to so many of them growing up, too many. Dad was a pastor and our lives revolved around the church. I had no problem with the faith part; it was eating and making conversation with adults—some of them total strangers—that got to me.
Four years ago, I moved with my sister and our parents to the far eastern tip of Maine, to a cabin in the tiny township of Trescott. We were as likely to see coyotes or eagles out the kitchen window as a car coming down the road.
It was the ideal spot for Mom and Dad to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of retirement, while we built a second home. Truth be told, though, I savored the solitude more than they did. I might have been in my forties, but part of me was still that shy, tongue-tied pastor’s kid.
Then out of the blue one evening came a knock on the cabin door. It was a white-haired man we’d never met. He got right to the point. “My name is Milo,” he said. “I heard there’s a retired pastor who lives here. Our church is in need of a minister.”
So much for retirement! Not that Dad minded, of course.
On a Saturday night not long after Milo’s visit, we walked into the basement of a nearby town’s Methodist church for—you guessed it—a bean supper. The room was packed, people sitting elbow to elbow at long tables, making the four empty chairs down front particularly conspicuous. Every eye followed us as we took our seats.
Milo clanged a huge kettle with a spoon and announced, “I’d like to welcome everyone and to introduce our new pastor, Dale Hupp, and his family.”
I didn’t realize then that when I stepped into that church basement, I’d crossed the threshold into a centuries-old community’s foundation of family, faith and food. I was too busy feeling awkward, fumbling for what to say. At least no one noticed amid the bustle—ladies in the congregation delivering hot casseroles, tables humming with laughter and conversation.
Soon I was invited to join the kitchen crew. I had to admit I was curious. Everyone at the first supper was friendly, happy, full of life. Was there some
secret recipe, some special dish, I didn’t know about?
Saturday afternoon I walked into the church kitchen. The rest of the crew stood around the big table peeling, slicing, mixing and yakking. I hung back, feeling like a stranger crashing a family reunion.
Not for long. “I’m Janice,” a woman said. “Ready to work?” She handed me a knife and pointed at the mound of potatoes in front of us. I got to slicing.
Everyone introduced themselves, then Janice launched into a tale about the time the brown bread exploded and shot through the ceiling into the Sunday school classroom above. Soon I was so caught up in conversation, I forgot about being nervous.
Alice checked the slow cookers of yellow eye and red kidney beans, salt pork and onion, and doctored them, adding a glug of molasses, a handful of sugar or a sprinkling of pepper. She knew exactly what each pot needed. A few of the women put finishing touches on cakes. Casseroles lined the counter, waiting for their turn in the oven.
As suppertime approached I got keyed up again. This time I wouldn’t be a guest. I would be waiting tables. Milo banged the pot and Dad said grace. I wished I’d paid more attention to the waitresses at that first supper. But I needn’t have worried. Gladys and Cindy and other women were near me anytime I faltered, effortlessly dishing up small talk, salads and casseroles. They made me look like a pro.
I marveled at how guests requested dishes by name: Janice’s Texas hash, Alice’s baked mac and cheese, Brenda’s clam casserole. People were talking and laughing, leaning in to hear one another. I could only catch bits and pieces of the chatter and yet with each dish I brought out, I felt more a part of everything going on around me. Like I belonged.
And I do. I’m now a proud five-year veteran of the kitchen crew. I’ve swapped a lot of recipes and even more stories working around that big table. I liked the nickname my friends and fellow waitresses gave Dad—the Big Dipper, for his Saturday night job ladling beans into thick china bowls. I know the regulars and their favorite fare (like Fred, who always makes me promise to save him some of Mom’s meatballs).
I look forward now to our church supper every month. People, regulars and strangers, come from all over to visit and happily crowd into the dining room. It really is a family reunion—a family drawn together not by blood but by God’s warm embrace, where the not-so-secret recipe is sharing food, faith and a part of ourselves.
Try these Baked Beans at your next supper!