Pass to the right, but don’t pass up the pie.
Those are the customs for partaking in one of the best meals to be had in Down East Maine – the monthly public suppers served up at the Centre Street Congregational Church in Machias.
Held the second Saturday of each month, October though April, the dinners are both plentiful and personable.
“It’s a social thing. I don’t think it’s just the food,” said Shirley St. Pierre, who has helped keep alive the Machias suppers for more than 40 years.
While many churches make their money through bean suppers and such in the spring and summer, the kitchen of the Machias church is hopping the rest of the year.
In New England, the tradition of public suppers dates back to at least the 1870s. Along with strawberry festivals and ice cream socials, suppers were developed as a way for churches to raise money to afford their ministers and building costs, according to Maine food historian Sandy Oliver.
“It all comes from the Protestant urge to bake things and serve coffee,” Oliver, author of the book “Saltwater Foodways” and the newsletter “Food History News,” said.
“You won’t find a church hall without a kitchen. That would be like an SUV without cup holders. That doesn’t happen. Churches serve suppers just because it’s a long tradition.”
Between May and September, a Saturday night doesn’t go by when there isn’t a choice of two or three public suppers in any region of Maine. Costing as little as $5, the dinners are an affordable way to get out of the house, enjoy a savory meal, catch up with neighbors and meet new people.
“There is something extremely convivial about sitting down at a great long table with friends and neighbors,” Oliver said.
These days, Oliver adds, many families are too busy to gather around the table for the evening meal. Parents are whisking their children to and from basketball practice or some other extracurricular activity.
The key to the Machias suppers is that they leave the calendar clear for the wealth of public suppers – beans and all – that fill the summer months. At the Centre Street church, volunteers set the tables for 70 in winter, and for as many as 80 or 90 in the warmer months.
In her 80s, Helen Vose is the galvanizing force behind the Centre Street suppers. She is quick to credit the 30 or 35 people who bring the salads, casseroles and pies each time, plus dozens of others who work in the kitchen or serve the tables.
If the kitchen is short on food, Vose cooks more herself. For the January supper, she whipped up three or four casseroles and salads, and another pair of pies, all before the doors opened at 5:30 p.m.
At a Machias supper in January, diners had much to choose from – scalloped potatoes, chicken pot pies, Jell-O salad, baked ziti, macaroni and ham. And, of course, baked beans. The food is so good and abundant, it’s hard not to talk with your mouth full.
“They put on a good dinner here, they really do,” said Machias resident Alden Joy, who has been attending the Centre Street suppers for about 45 years.
Harold Stuart, also of Machias, shared memories of his mother and aunt who always baked pies for Centre Street suppers. He has a lifelong fondness for the church, having started going there for Sunday school “77 years ago.”
Fellowship aside, the real reason that folks go for these family-style meals is the food.
Vicki Porter of Cutler sampled a slice of pumpkin cheesecake.
“You get a little taste of everything here,” she remarked. “It’s such variety.”
A Centre Street supper can raise $300 or more. But organizers don’t plan to boost the $5 charge.
“We do have to earn money, so this helps,” Vose said. “But it also gives the people something to do on Saturday evening.
“I just feel that anything you can do in Machias to get people out and together, plus bring in a bit of money, too, is a good thing.”
The remaining public suppers this year at the Centre Street Congregational Church take place at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and March 13. An April supper won’t be held as it would fall the evening before Easter. For information and directions, call 255-6665. Katherine Cassidy can be reached at 255-3324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Sampling of Suppers
. Seniors dinners, 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays, Alton United Methodist Church Hall, Route 16, Alton, $2.50 donation, reservations suggested. 394-2702, 394-2734.
. Supper featuring baked beans, ham, casserole and pies, 5 p.m. Feb. 14, Hammond Street Congregational Church, corner of Hammond and High streets, Bangor. $6, $3 children.
. Sweet Valentine Special Breakfast Buffet, 6:30-10 a.m. Feb. 14, Franklin Street United Methodist Church, Bucksport. $5, $3 children.
. Baked bean supper, 5-6:30 p.m. Feb. 14, Goodwill Riders Snowmobile Club’s clubhouse, Western Avenue, Hampden. $5, $2 children. 862-3973.
. Turkey supper, 5 p.m. Feb. 14, Searsport United Methodist Church, Searsport. $6, $3 children under 12. 548-2239.
. Valentine’s Day baked bean supper, 4:45-6 p.m. Feb. 14, Veazie Congregational Church, Veazie. $6, $3 children.