CAMPTON BAPTIST CHURCH
Last Saturday night, Arnie and I had an opportunity to attend a church supper at the Plymouth United Methodist Church, my Mothers church home in Plymouth, NH. We always look forward to timing our visits right to be able to stop in and catch up with local folks we have known for years and enjoy one of the best meals in town for $10.00. We always hope for a Chance Encounter with someone who we have not seen in a long time and we are never disappointed. Going to the local church supper links us directly back into a familiar place and time.
I grew up in Campton, a small neighboring town steeped in community and tradition. For most of us young kids, social activity revolved around the sturdy brick Baptist church that stood rooted on the common. It didn’t matter whether or not you were Baptist, if you wanted to be where the other kids were, you went to Youth Fellowship and Sunday School and all of the church suppers at the Campton Baptist Church. Unless you could drive, it was the only game in town. It was what you did during that spiritually unconscious time of life when you just simply went where your Grandmother told you to go and enjoyed the company of friends (right Ann and Mary?) because they were doing the same thing. And it was good.
Campton Baptist Church gave me a foundational immersion in a theology that I would later use as an architecture and a springboard to think critically about what path really fit my worldview best. While I moved gradually in another spiritual direction I would contend that all of the great religious thinkers have much more in common than they have differences. While the details may vary, a concern for the greater good is woven into all legitimate schools of religious thought. Therefore, I would contend that spiritually, I haven’t moved much at all from that little church that still sits overlooking the Village. Perhaps we never completely leave behind the indoctrination of our childhood, but rather build upon its foundation?
In this gentle and small church community, I learned about greater community. Here we gathered to celebrate life and mark all its important transitions. One of those transitions that we gathered for was the changing of the seasons; a significant event in New England. where the seasons bring such dramatic shifts. Church suppers marked the advent of spring, summer, fall and winter. with all of the seasonal foods represented, especially the annual harvest supper. Church suppers gathered families from the Village and beyond to share a meal and then tarry over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie to catch up on one another’s lives. Undeniably symbolic, the ritual of gathering for a meal has brought people together for eons.
Church suppers are a very old concept based in practicality and finance as much as serving a social function. Originally, churches supported their minister’s salary with a town levy. But after the Revolution, funds were spare and had to be diverted to other needs. It fell to the Women’s auxiliary groups to get creative and organize ice cream socials and church suppers to cover costs. Leave it to the women to save the day! also It was not unusual to see local politicians stop by and shake hands, recognizing a grassroots opportunity to connect and fund-raise. I recall this from the suppers of my childhood, but I don’t know if this still happens or if social media has taken the place of in person connections.
Thus arose this effective method of generating funds that would evolve into a treasured New England tradition. Meals are often Ham and Beans, built around a variety of made -from-scratch dishes brought along by church members. Cole slaw, mac and cheese, green bean casserole, homemade yeast rolls and brown bread, corn pudding and of course, the pies line the serving table. Here, things haven’t changed much over the years, and that’s what’s wonderful about it. People mostly don’t cook this way at home anymore, but this is comfort food that brings back memories. Milk glass sugar and creamers and jelly jars set the table with flowers picked from someone’s garden create a country cooking ambience. Growing up, there were tin foil covered donation baskets on the table and I recall my Dad, a committed agnostic, putting a then generous five dollar bill in the basket for our meal. He didn’t go to church, but he never missed a meal!
All of the wonderful family recipes handed down through generations are represented and eagerly anticipated by supper goers. Women in the church are known by what they make for the church supper. If you want some good old New England food, here’s a cookbook that includes some great recipes: the Church Supper & Potluck Dinner Cookbook published by Yankee Magazine. And if you want a fun recipe, google Scripture Cake!
As we travel, we have discovered different specialties in different regions of the country : in the South it is fried chicken dinners, in the Northeast it is bean and ham suppers. Amish dinners in Pennsylvania are popular and Chowder suppers along the Mass and Maine coast catch the summer crowd. But everywhere, there are the pies! Church supper pies are legend. You cannot talk about church suppers without special mention of homemade pies. A separate table is usually laid out with slices of cherry, apple, peach and blueberry. Lemon meringue and chocolate cream peaked with meringue make your mouth water. Strawberry rhubarb in the summer and pecan in the fall are favorites. And we cannot forget apple! All with homemade crusts; no boxed desserts here! The women in the congregation have their own following! Once a month now, my Mom still makes a pecan pie that disappears very quickly and our dear family friend Lois crafts an exquisite Lemon pie too.