A New Hampshire Church Supper

It's a New England ritual. Ham and beans — a match made in heaven



Attendees line up for the buffet serving.

Photo by Susan Laughlin

What is a foodie doing at a church supper? Well, home-cooked foods are all the rage in restaurants and what better place to find the real thing than the local church basement. These Saturday evening rituals are probably older than the clapboard buildings they are held in. Was the Last Supper the first church supper? Maybe not, but food and community create a legacy that is self-sustaining. The next generation just knows the drill.

Searching online I found a ham and bean supper at the Boscawen Congregational Church located right at the divide of Rtes. 3 and 4.

The Saturday evening was scheduled to start at 4:30, but I found people were lined up early. They confessed to angling for the closest parking spaces and the best seats in the house — those near the buffet tables.

I was expecting a pretty grim experience — a roomful of sober senior citizens stalking a lone pot of beans laced with a few shards of ham.  And all under unforgiving cast of  fluorescent lights. Well, it turned out to be a pretty good time.

My first encounters quickly elicited a laugh and there were plenty more throughout the evening. Deacon Bill Daniels guided me to Chris Paull, who has been directing the supper effort for many years. But before I could meet her, my eyes were redirected to the dessert table.

The soft golden light of the late afternoon sun shone through the large basement windows and the pie display glowed like a movie vision of the holy grail. There they were, teasing the early birds with their caloric cunning. In fact, I think the pies are the driving force that gets the public through the doors and down the steps each month. I wanted to stick my finger in each variety and was tempted at one point to play the "food editor" card. But a hand-lettered sign said sternly: "One dessert per person." Thou shalt not purloin pie.

Pie ladies patrol the dessert table keeping it filled with a variety of pies.
By Susan Laughlin

Chris and a handful of others, including Carol and Ken Adams, were moving with purpose and setting out the last of the Jell-O salads, each a giggling masterpiece of canned fruit trapped in vibrant shades of transparent red and green. Four oven roasters were laden with rations. Two types of beans, a deep red kidney and a pea bean in a light brown sauce were headlining the bill of fare. Another roaster was filled with ham slices layered with pineapple and brown sugar while the last held a hot macaroni salad. The pie ladies, Beverly Lacoy and Lily Houston, remained on guard at their station — a 20-foot-long table of pie slices arranged with military precision.

The church basement is owned by the town and not the church, and a big plus is the air conditioning. Tonight it was filled with carefully aligned tables covered with colorful plastic tablecloths, each with its own vase of artificial flowers. About 150 metal folding chairs were poised and ready to take the heat. Most  importantly, the functional space was graced with sunbeams that added a cheery note.

Promptly at 4:30 p.m. Chris started the show with a brief welcome and prayer. Those who arrived earliest were regulars and knew where to sit to land the first assault on the buffet tables. And they were smiling as they skimmed the first layer off of fresh salads, pots of beans and the dug the first foxhole into the pristine Jell-O masterpieces.

I found a seat next to a few smiling faces, mostly retirees, and settled in with a sampling from across the buffet. My scant tablespoon serving of beans elicited a look from a fellow that said, "Really, all this bounty and that's it?"

Happy regulars arrive early to secure their favorite table.
By Susan Laughlin

But I was thinking ahead to dessert. Like the others, I had grabbed a pie slice on the first reconnaissance trip. It was Chris' ice box strawberry and chocolate concoction and a good choice. Never did find out about the other temptations.

When I asked, "Does anyone bring Beano," my tablemate replied, "We don't want to spoil the fun later this evening." Maybe eyesight is the first to go, but thankfully the sense of humor just keeps getting keener.

Most of the attendees weren't church members. A few were church supper veterans who knew the bean scene and made sorties through the region for the best Saturday dining deal. With an average cost of around eight bucks for a multi-course meal and no tip necessary, it's a cheap date night. Most people came with a mate and, from appearances, the same one they courted in youth. Maybe there is something about beans that binds the tie. Maybe it's the laughter, later, under the covers.

Chris Paull is the keeper of the "book" or manual for running the supper. It lays out all strategic plans from setting up the room to baking the ham to preparing the divine raisin sauce (see recipe). It takes a village of volunteers to pull this campaign off each month. The salads, the pies, the beans, the ham are all prepared by church members who donate their prep time. And the lovely fresh bread is baked by members who own the local pizzeria.

One of many Jell-O salads
By Susan Laughlin

Except for the ham and bread flour, all the ingredients are donations too. On a good night the church nets about $1,000. "It's like a dance," says Chris. It all falls together each time, mostly with the same volunteers whose names are inscribed in the book. Like a call to duty, it's probably hard to get off the list. Maybe death or near death earns you a bye.  Otherwise, make sure your two pies arrive by 4 p.m.

This scene is re-enacted across the state every Saturday and every season. Check local newspapers for community notices on when and where.

Raisin Sauce

  • Melt 2 tablespoons butter over low heat in heavy pan.
  • Blend in 2 tablespoons flour.
  • Remove from heat and stir in 2 cups apple cider, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup seedless raisins.
  • Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil one minute then remove from heat. Serve hot.
  • Makes 2 cups.

 

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