July 31, 2013

Time for beans in Belgrade

There are those who measure the seasons not in what the weather is doing or how the leaves look, but by the availability of cheap, plentiful food.

click image to enlarge

Readfield firefighters shovel dirt of the top of steel plates covering their bean hole beans in 2011 during Readfield Heritage Days. Readfield’s bean hole supper is Saturday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Readfield fire station.

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

There are church bean dinners in the winter, clambakes and chicken barbecues in the summer and hunters’ breakfasts in the fall. But no season is more satisfying than the short, hot bean hole season.

Maybe it’s just the Maine-ness of it. Maybe it’s the fact it takes a lot of hard-working people two good days to make the beans. Maybe it’s the name. Whatever it is, if summer goes by without at least one bean hole supper meal, you’re having a less than optimal season.

The Abanakis, Maine’s first and more enduring people, started the tradition of cooking beans in a hole in the ground. Their recipe included maple syrup, venison and other meat, and sometimes bear grease.

Loggers, trappers, hunters and anyone who could dig a hole and put a fire in it have been eating bean hole beans in Maine ever since.

Sometime over the years, they became a thing.

Volunteer fire departments across the state use them to raise money. CBS News and The New York Times do features that are seen and read by people you can bet wouldn’t know a bean hole if they fell in one.

In Belgrade Lakes, the supper has been going on since at least the 1960s. Now sponsored by the Belgrade Fire Department, it’s held the first Saturday of August — this Saturday.

There was one year, when it was between sponsoring groups, it didn’t take place. The summer people “put up a stink,” Dave Viens said this week.

“Some people plan their summer around it,” said his wife, Kris Viens. The Viens should know. They are keepers of the recipe in Belgrade.

Laugh if you will, but the recipe is no laughing matter.

“Only a few people know it,” Dave said. He refuses to give up the details. Over the years some have tinkered with it, but it’s remained basically the same since it was handed to Dave by longtime residents Al and Lydia Johnson.

Dave Viens is a newcomer to the Lakes — 49, he’s lived on School Street for the past 26 years.

Kris, 46, grew up in the village, though, and is a bean hole veteran, a tradition handed down from her father. She started as a kid, but has been an official volunteer every year since she was 19, helping the Johnsons, the former longtime recipe keepers. Her duties now include the measuring and she also frequently works in the pit.

The Viens are the starting gun for every year’s bean hole supper. As the keepers of the recipe, they go over to the bean hole behind the fire station on Thursday evening to soak and pick over the 150 pounds of beans in 13 pots. The Viens’ 13-year-old son, Michael, frequently helps out, too.

After the beans soak overnight, the fire department takes over around noon Friday, starting the fire up.

Once the embers are ready, holes are dug in them and the cast iron pots full of beans are lowered in.

The beans cook until the dinner starts at 5 p.m. Saturday across Route 27 at the Center for All Seasons.

Get there at 4 though. That’s when the line starts forming.

The supper in Belgrade consistently draws 400 customers. One year, they came close to 600 and almost ran out of beans.

Another year, torrential rains put out the fire and people all over town cooked the beans in their kitchens.

Leftover beans? No problem. They sell them by the quart after the supper.

Hungry yet? The good news is, Belgrade isn’t the only place in the area to get some good bean hole beans in the next week.

Saturday, at the Monmouth Fair, the fire department is serving them from 4 to 7 p.m.

Readfield’s fire department’s bean hole supper is next Saturday from 4:30 to 6 at the Readfield fire station.

And anyone up in the Lexington Township area can find a bean hole supper every Saturday night all summer long at the Happy Horseshoe Campground.

While there are plenty of places in central Maine this time of year to get bean hole beans, Dave Viens declares Belgrade’s are “by far the best.”

“I’ve had beans from Mount Vernon and Readfield, and ours kick butt,” Viens said. Then he adds, “And that’s not just because I’m biased.”

What makes them so good? We’ll never know. He won’t give up the recipe.

A look at Google shows most bean hole beans have molasses, brown sugar, dried mustard, some juicy chunks of pork fat. Dave volunteers that in Belgrade, they use both pea beans and yellow-eye beans.

But other than that, neither Viens will say what makes them so good.

Even a recent, um, disagreement over the addition of onions hasn’t affected the overall superiority, they said.

Obviously, in this Internet, fast food, everything right now age, if people are still taking two days to cook beans the same way the Abenakis did hundreds of years ago, there must be a reason.

You bet. Forget canned beans. Or beans in a store-bought jar. They are pale, drab pretenders.

Kris Viens sums it up. “There’s no beans like them. I won’t eat beans any other way.”

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at mmilliken@mainetoday.com. Kennebec Tales appears the first and third Thursday of the month.

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