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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: November 4, 2014

Stephen Bither – “bean-meister”

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I grew up out west where there are potlucks and barbecues but no “bean suppahs.” I’d never heard of a bean supper until I moved to Maine. In fact, I really didn’t ever eat baked beans, either. It seems –mostly– to be a New England thing.

I first met Stephen because I was curious about this tradition and its place in my community. He organizes the monthly bean suppers for his church, Cape Elizabeth’s United Methodist Church. Stephen told me about the suppers and about his life and how his leadership extends beyond his volunteer role at the church to the leader of a humor band and as a lawyer.

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WHAT IS A MAINE BEAN “SUPPAH?”

A Maine bean suppah is a community event – usually at a church but sometimes a grange or some other organization– where there’s sort of a standard set of foods. And then there’s other kinds of foods, pies usually. It’s a chance for people to get together on a Saturday night and have dinner at a fairly low price. It’s designed to be a community event and for this church it helps raise some money too. I don’t think I know anything about the history of bean suppahs other than I’m a Mainer and we always had them!

WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES LIKE OF BEAN SUPPAHS GROWING UP?

Let’s see, I think I did one for the boy scouts one time. They had less variety than what this suppah has, but it would have beans and hot dogs or beans and maybe ham or something and cornbread and a pie or something. People would sit around and have a cup of coffee and just talk with each other, which was especially nice in the winter time.

WHAT’S YOUR RECIPE FOR MAKING BEANS?

It’s very simple. I get navy and kidney beans – there are other kinds you can get too but those seem to do well with the bean suppah. You soak them overnight for maybe 10 hours, something like that, just in the water, and then one should drain all the water out because that’s what sometimes causes the gas from beans! So if you drain that first set of water out it should make it have a little bit less of “the special effect” of beans! Then I follow a very simple recipe that adds brown sugar, dry mustard, salt, some salt pork, in some of them, and some molasses. In another recipe, I put in some tomatoes and some onions, but sometimes I put bacon in too. Then I make a vegetarian baked bean It’s my own recipe in which I’ve replaced the salt pork with olive oil and put apple, brown sugar or some honey and maple syrup.

So it’s fairly simple, there’s no magic to it. And then you cook them. And that takes a while. Recommended to cook at 300 degrees, so a real low heat for a long time. What I do is after about four hours I’ll take them out and look because the water’s still being absorbed because you have to cover them over with water – you check to make sure there’s still a little bit of water on top because otherwise they’ll dry out and turn into glop. So I add a little bit of water and then another four hours later I do the same thing. I turn them down, turn the heat down a little bit at night before I got to bed because I cooked them all day yesterday and I get up at four in the morning and check and sometimes the beans definitely need a little bit more water. So total time is, oh gosh, 16, 18 hours. Plus they’d already been soaking from the day before. So it’s a process. I think it’s kind of fun to watch it occur, especially with the kidney beans and the pea beans start off one color and then you can sort of tell that they’re done when they turn another color. These are pea beans, they were white when they started, now they’re all molasses-y. So the flavor is infused. I’m not giving away my secret am I?

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ARE THERE TRADITIONS ABOUT HOW THINGS ARE PREPARED? NO CANS OF BEANS ALLOWED?

I’ll be diplomatic about this and say, sometimes, if we run out of the homemade beans, the kind people at B&M Baked Beans have given us some beans. And so sometimes we serve their beans too, but I like making them anyway. I made three kinds of beans for today’s suppah. But sometimes we have some cans of beans around.

HOW DID YOU LEARN TO COOK THIS WAY?

Well, trial and error, I’m afraid. I got the recipe and the method from a guy who goes to church here because I really wanted to have us have bean suppahs at this church, which we had had only infrequently. After I kind of came in to lead the bean suppahs – there was one person before me – I wanted to cook the beans, too. That’s the fun part.

WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO GET THE BEAN SUPPAHS STARTED AGAIN?

Well, I mentioned that it’s a community event not only for the people in this area but for people in the church who just enjoy working with each other. We try to make it as stress-free and as humorous or fun as work can be so it’s kind of fun just to work together with people. So I liked those aspects of the suppah and just wanted to help make them happen.

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WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND WHERE DID THEY HOLD THE SUPPAHS IN YOUR TOWN?

I grew up in Portland. They didn’t really have very many of them then, but once in a while we’d find one, we’d go to one. There was one at Woodford’s Church at one time, but it wasn’t a regular one. They were more out in the country. A lot of them are also a potluck, so people bring in casseroles and they share. Ours is a modified potluck in that people bring in the casseroles but I know what they’re going to have in advance because I make a list and so we know when we set things out. A lot of people don’t even eat any of the beans. So it’s not really about the beans, it’s more about the food and the companionship. There’s one lady that makes this wonderful gluten-free macaroni and cheese and it’s gone in a heartbeat. Two big trays of it and people see that and it’s gone! There’s one guy makes a meatloaf and it’s terrific. Some people come to the suppahs because this one guy makes a great broccoli casserole with stuffing.

IT’S LIKE WHEN YOUR MOTHER MAKES SOMETHING AND YOU’LL NEVER MAKE IT AS GOOD AS SHE MAKES IT

Yes. And some of these ladies are like my mothers. A couple of them have passed away and it was really sad to miss them because they liked to bring their stuff in and share it and that was a special thing too, I think, to feel like they were contributing something.

WHAT IS THE DEMOGRAPHIC OF THIS CONGREGATION LIKE?

There’s a mixture. There’re some young families, there’re some people who have been members of the church for 50 years that come, and then once in a while there’ll just be somebody, maybe more like me, who comes in for a while and just enjoys the experience. It’s a variety of things. We’d love to have more kids. We try to have things that are interesting to kids.

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IS THERE A CERTAIN SENSE THAT IT’S REALLY TIED TO NEW ENGLAND CULTURE OR DO YOU JUST FEEL LIKE IT’S SOMETHING YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN AROUND?

It’s something I’ve always been around. It reminds me of how Garrison Keillor talks about community meals on the radio. He might talk about suppahs at the church but they’ll have something else other that a bean suppah, they’ll have a fish chowder or something. I think it’s the same idea that it’s people gathering together. In the real old days it’s pretty wicked cold in the winter so people like to come over to the church hall and be near each other and generate some heat that way. So a suppah had a purpose of taking the edge off the cold a little bit.

TELL ME ABOUT THE SEASONAL ASPECT OF THE SUPPAHS

We have them from October through May. A lot of churches have them all year round but our people both are gone sometimes in the summer or they need a vacation from doing this! We did a spaghetti suppah this summer on the day before the Beach to Beacon race and I think it got some people but it wasn’t as attractive, in part because the traffic around the race. People wouldn’t mind doing a summertime suppah though.

TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR SPECIFIC ROLE AS AN ORGANIZER

My role is as a coordinator, I’ll put it that way. I’ll call people up, ask them to bring stuff. Most people I know that they’re going to (bring something), but I like to have a list because sometimes they say, “oh, I’m not going to be here,” so I just have to know. I also ask people to do tasks at the suppah. And they all know what they have to do so it’s not like I’m whipping people. People just know that they’re going to this and this, it seems to me they just like the feeling that maybe somebody else is, not in charge but is aware of whatever everyone else is doing. So I don’t see a dictatorship! Besides that, and it’s partly because I have time to do it I guess, you saw me with the plates, I come in on Fridays and another guy, his job, which he likes to do, is to help set up the tables. So he and I set the tables but when I’m out here I’ll check the supplies and then if it needs more I’ll go to the BJs or the supermarket. I also have to go to the bank to get enough money to have change for the guy that collects the money and make sure he’s on the job.

Then what happens is during the suppah there’s somebody that comes in who’s “the cook,” she’s organizing and will just make sure some dishes are ready. Then the ladies out here, or the gentlemen, will come in and say “we need another casserole,” “we need another big casserole,” and we’ll get one out of the kitchen and bring it out there. And that’s part of it. And sometimes people they know that something is needed but they just want somebody that can decide “do it this way.” Not “do it this way” but you have a choice of three ways to do it, I say “do it this way” in the decision-maker role. People work as hard or harder than I do and they just don’t want to have to make all the other decisions so there’s very often little decisions, that’s fine, I’ll do that, or big ones too.

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HOW LONG DOES IT GO UNTIL?

6 o’clock. It’s just an afternoon thing, it’s not even an evening thing. People usually eat at 6 at night, they say “I’ll eat early” and come in about 6 and we’re just about done, we’re folding up the chairs. Some people come in and that’s the first thing they do, they want to make sure that they get the pie that they like. It’s so cute! The suppahs start at 4:30 p.m., there’s some people before 4 that are here, looking at, checking out their pies.

DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE SUPPAHS HAVE ANY TIE TO THE ACTUAL TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH?

Well, I’d like to think so. I think so in part of Christ saying “where two or more are gathered…” But there’s no preaching, you don’t have to pass a test. I have Jewish friends that come in here, but they don’t eat the pork and the beans. It’s more just serving the community and having a smile for people, which is the good part of some religions. Instead of judging people you just welcome them in and you talk to people that you don’t know or your neighbors or something and I think that that’s in the spirit that I’d like to think of as church.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WORK AS A LAWYER

I have a practice in my home in Portland. I’ve been a lawyer for 26 years. I do general practice. People’s wills, estates, divorce and family stuff, real estate, small businesses. No criminal stuff. And civil litigation, some litigation between companies and stuff like that.

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DO YOU EVER FEEL LIKE THAT WORK THAT YOU’VE DONE THERE TIES INTO YOUR VOLUNTEER WORK HERE?

I, either fortunately or unfortunately, do a lot of pro bono legal work. I say fortunately because I don’t have a family I have to support and that makes it a little easier. So I do a lot of that and enjoy it. I hope you understand that’s not bragging, it’s just something that I like to do. I like to get paid too but I enjoy doing that. So yes, I feel like they’re tied in. If you have the time and you feel like you want to and money isn’t the most important thing then you can. So I love doing that.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO OUTSIDE OF YOUR CHURCH AND LAW WORK?

I’m in The Wicked Good Band and we do Maine humor. We play festivals and stuff like that, and one of the songs that I wrote before I even knew about this stuff was called “The Baked Bean Boogie.” It’s sort of a little rap. We had four albums out and that’s on one of the albums,”The Baked Bean Boogie.” There are three of us that work together and then we expand and there’s five or six. It’s similar to the leadership here, when the three main people are doing stuff we’re all very funny. Individually we’re not as funny as the three of us are.

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

I think with all of my careers and everything, to do interesting things, to enjoy life, to feel like I’m helping somebody else but also to- part of the enjoyment is to have some laughter and all of these things have fun attached.

WHAT IS A LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE RECENTLY OR ARE LEARNING?

Well, I enjoy some challenges too so it’s not like I’m just doing the same thing all the time. So I’ve learned – which I knew anyway – that you just can’t go say, “I’m going to do something,” you’ve got to get it ready for yourself and make something happen. I do play music in nursing homes too with a couple of other guys, which is really fun, we do the old, old, oldies because the folks are oldies and they like to sing along. To apply what I said about learning, some of the songs, although I know them I have to practice them or learn them in order to play them for other people. Some I can just sit down and play anything but these I had to shape out and that’s a fun challenge.

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WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?

Well, one is my health. I didn’t have a heart attack but I had some heart problems last year and was in the hospital for 10 days. I had cancer five or six years ago: prostate cancer. A great disappointment from that was I had applied for and was accepted into the Peace Corps and then I didn’t pass the physical because I had cancer. And I’ve been trying to learn why. Not “why me” in a sad way but what am I supposed to be doing when that didn’t happen. So going through that makes life interesting too but I am grateful for my health. I had started to shut down my law practice and organizing people to take my house and all the other things of my life and then it pulled out from under me. I was unhappy but I also said “I guess there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing.” Then one of the gifts is the desire to want to go do something and the ability to do it because of my circumstances. I don’t feel I’ve got to support somebody or something else, I can go try things out.

WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?

I suppose it might be the recognition of aging. I’m 66 and I recognize that life has an end point to it. Just this past week a friend of mine from college died rather suddenly and it’s happening too much. I won’t say it troubles me but it certainly makes me think of how I want to do the rest of what I’m doing. I’m sounding like an old fuddy-duddy but I get concerned when people are doing too much of the mechanical stuff and not talking face to face with people or just listening or whatever else. There’s a lot of personal interaction that is getting lost and it’s too bad. That’s the bean suppah thing because you don’t sit at the table next to somebody- I suppose you do- you could be texting or whatever else but instead you look at your neighbor and you talk with them. Even if it’s about small-talk things.

IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA IN YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

There’s a couple, some of these go to The Wicked Good Band because we’re always doing silly things. One of them is “Who gives a shit?” It sort of a joke that goes with being what might be called cool or wicked good: don’t worry what people think of you. Although, I like to be laughed at when I’m being a comedian but I don’t necessarily want to as a lawyer. Another one is “relax and give up some of what you have.” And the other is related to that and if it was my epitaph would be something like “be of good cheer.” And I usually am, I’d rather be friendly to people, smile, ask about them and share and listen. And that’s a motto that I try to apply in everything that I do.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

The harder answer is: it depends on what day it is. When the weather is good and I’ll go for a run in the morning and run five miles and sometimes that’s the best because I feel good then. I go around the Boulevard, Baxter Boulevard, in Portland, and that’s a special time. I also like sometimes at the end of the day, or six-ish or something, whether it’s cocktail hour or whatever else, and I just shift from office work to having a book and sitting down and having quiet time.

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