November 11, 2009

Maybe It's Me: Bean Suppers, or, I'm a Mutt Not a Pure-Bred

I'm a mutt not a pure-bred.

You'll find a little German, a little Polish, a little Native American, a little Swiss (although the validity of this has been up for family debate for a good decade now), a little Irish, and a whole lot of French in my blood. Thankfully, I didn't receive my great-great aunts Polish uni-brow, but instead inherited my great-great grandmothers Irish freckles and penchant for whiskey. Which everyone seems to find awfully charming, so this is okay by me.

In behavior, I tend to be a little more Swiss and French. Swiss in my mentality of neutrality and chocolate; French in my mentality of gluttony and family.

I'm aware that these are horrible generalizations, but before anyone gets up in arms about this, remember that we're innately poking fun at my ancestry here. And maybe it's me, but we all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a little more, and that absolutely includes being able to find amusement in our genealogy.

An important tradition in the French-Canadian community here in Maine is the practice of Bean Suppers. I'm not sure how this began, although research explained that the pilgrims might have started it, by making an over abundance of beans on Saturday so they wouldn't have to cook on the Sabbath.

In my area of the world, it seems that this became a weekly ritual for the French-Canadians (those heavily-accented ancestors of mine) who traveled down from Quebec in the late 1800's. Saturday afternoon was a time of family and beans. I assume they started doing it because it was a good way to get the entire family (and I do mean the entire family) together after a long hard week of work for socializing and . . . you guessed it . .. gluttony.

Three of my four grandparents were part of the Canada to Maine transition, and were very French (as in, English was their second language, and even then it was mostly broken). And my fourth grandparent was a sassy little mutt (the German, Polish, Irish, and Native American) from Los Angeles and the Bronx. She was very "American" (as in, she married a French fella and had to learn his language and culture real fast to be able to fit in).

While my own parents (who spoke fluent English and French - my mom still can, my dad has mostly lost his French) never really observed any of our ancestors traditions (I think the only tradition we really had was sticking a porcelain pickle in our Christmas tree - it's a German thing, don't ask), the one ritual they would never break was the Bean Supper held always on Saturday afternoons.

There is a bakery in my hometown which caters to this long-standing tradition, and every Saturday they have their own "Bean Special" (which, literally, is only available on Saturday's from 6am to 1pm) where you can get baked pea beans, coleslaw, biscuits or brown bread - with or without raisins, hot dogs or ham, and pie or Danish for dessert. For as long as I can remember my family, either within our nucleus (mom, dad, sister, me) or with my grandparents (and other various family members), would come together for a noontime Bean Special dinner.

Over the years churches began hosting Baked Bean Suppers on Friday or Saturday nights as fundraisers, where for a very nominal fee one could go and enjoy the sweet feeling of community while being fed this warm, comfortable traditional French-Canadian fare. I believe that they started doing this for the elderly populace who needed a social outing and a place to gather to remember and laugh, commiserate and feel needed.

Having recently celebrated my Quarter Century Birthday I made a promise to myself to change a few things about the way I live. Some of them were silly (drink more water!) and some of them were very poignant (hug Dad more often). One of the things I decided I needed in my life was more Bean Suppers (to help me stay in touch with my heritage) and more face-time with my grandmothers (who far outlived their husbands - such independent-souls those women were).

I called the grandmother that I saw the least - Meme: my sassy "American" mutt grandmother - and asked her if she might want to go to a Bean Supper with me. Her old parish was hosting one, and I thought it might be nice for her to get out of the house and see some familiar faces.

My grandmother, God bless her soul, is a little high-maintenance sometimes. She was blessed with the gift of gab. If she knows you, or thinks she knows you, or knows someone who looks like you, or doesn't see anyone else who fits into one of those first three categories first (i.e. you're a stranger), then most likely she'll talk to you. She'll first ask if you know her son (my uncle is a bit famous - a sports broadcaster here in New England), and if you don't, she'll ask if you know her other kids; and if you don't, she'll ask if you know her grandkids; and if you don't, she'll ask if you know her working the concession stand at all the high school football games; and if you don't, she'll as if you know her son (my uncle - still a bit famous a paragraph later).

She's a wonderful, effervescent eighty-three year old woman with a bank full of memories that would make for a spectacular tome of good reads.

Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to handle my grandmothers local celebrity status or the odd-nature/denseness of most French-Canadians I’ve met (which grows odder and more dense still when you put a herd of them in a room together), and also knowing that time is short and we’re running out of precious moments to spend with the people we love, I roped my little sister in going with me.

When we arrived at 4pm (dinner was being served between 4pm and 6pm, “The earlier the better!” my grandmother chirped when we were planning it) it was already packed. I dropped my grandmother and my little sister, her hair a radiant shade of pink, off, giving my sister the peace sign like I wasn’t coming back, before going to park.

I reconvened with the two, discovering my grandmother had paid for us. We were escorted by a heavily accented man to a table where three other people were already seated. We soon found ourselves serving each other in a family style situation.

My sister is awkward and lacks social graces, especially in situations where she feels uncomfortable (being the youngest person in a room filled with seventy and eighty year old extremely French people, and having them all stare at her brilliantly shaded hair makes her uber curmudgeon-y). She and I had a few choice words regarding her behavior and temperament while my grandmother ooh’ed and ahh’ed over all the people she saw that she knew, thought she knew, looked like someone she knew, or were people she didn’t know at all.

“Listen here, they are very old and very French. BE NICE!,” I hissed to her.

“Don’t you start with me,” she hissed back, her eyes like daggers as an elderly woman hunched over her trying to give her coffee, despite my sister’s best intentions in explaining that she didn’t actually want coffee.

“Non, merci,” I said to the woman trying to pour coffee in my sisters cup. “This might be painful now, but in five years moments like this are going to mean the world to us,” I whispered while my grandmother threw a childlike temper-tantrum over the piece of banana-chocolate chip bread she saw me eat (only one piece on the whole table and I did offer it to her, she declined, I ate it, then she was upset).

After harassing an elderly volunteer into finding her a piece of the bread and receiving it (my persuasive nature clearly comes from The Original Mutt; the stubborn streak three-fold from the other grands), she crooned, “Oh, girls, this is just wonderful! Thank you so much! No one takes me out anymore! I’m so happy!”

My sister’s demeanor softened as she understood why it was exactly that I dragged her along.

“Do you girls mind if I visit a little? I’d like to say hi to some people. This used to be my church, you know.” My grandmother asked us, her face lit up with excitement.

My sister and I headed outside into the crisp autumn air where the church bells were ringing merrily to wait for our wonderful grandmother. We looked at each other and smiled. It was a beautiful moment.

“C’est bon?” I asked her.

She nodded her head and pulled the cigarette from her lips. “Oui, c’est bon.”

We drove home in quiet, three women of the same, yet different blood, mutt’s not pure-breds content feeling like perhaps we had tricked time as our stolen moment of community and gluttony washed over us. And for a brief instant, I felt reconnected to generations of wonderful German, Polish, Native American, Swiss (still questionable, though), Irish, and a whole lot of French people I never got to meet thanks to beans and my grandmother the town celebrity