NOW and then in the winter, but mostly in the summercation time, people from away will ask me what a covered-dish supper is. They come to Maine from places that seemingly don't patronize this sport, and when they step into a post office to mail greeting cards back home, they see posters that announce covered-dish suppers. Curiosity sends them to an expert, who is now testifying. The covered-dish supper is, historically, a Maine invention, and while it may be in use in other places, I gather it gets called something else. Our covered dish is the other fellow's casserole, and as in the French the word covers both the dish and the food cooked in it. We cook a casserole in a casserole, but we do not serve food en casserole. If the casserole (the dish) comes to the table, the casserole (the food) is served on other dishes.
In our summertimes, the covered-dish supper may well be meant to entice a few dollars from the seasonal visitor, a benefit for some local cause, but the best ones come when we are alone with our snowdrifts and we gather socially by ourselves. In our usage a pot of beans is always acceptable as a cousin of the casserole, i.e., a covered dish.
It is indeed an inspiring sight to see people arriving at the town house, vestry, and lodge hall, coming by couples with the gentleman on ahead carrying his casserole with two potholders and his wife, who prepared the dish, at his heels warning him against a misstep. Here in Friendship, our finest covered-dish supper (although I may get arguments about this) is the one ``put on'' by the Women's Auxiliary of the Friendship Volunteer Fire Department just before each Christmas. It is significantly free of charge and meant for the holiday socializing of the folks in town who, throughout the rest of the year, support the community ambulance service.
There is a Christmas tree with small gifts (everybody brings one and everybody gets one), a carol sing with the best piano player in the world, the reading of a traditional Christmas story, and to set the mood the whoppingest covered-dish supper of them all. The women involved have long since established each by each their reputations for special dishes, and as folks move cafeteria-fashion down the serving table they alert each other as to who made the shrimp and who the clam, and how to tell Bertha's souffl'e from Marion's. My wife, I brag, gets the nod on the pot of beans, and I bear it to the gastronomic altar gallantly.
But a covered-dish supper need not be limited to covered dishes. A master turkey will be sliced, and a couple of hams. And a separate serving table will be wopple-legged under the pies. Again, the pies are identified as Nancy's or Freda's, or whosever, and one will be apple and another custard, and forty-'leven other kinds. But all over Maine there are covered-dish suppers often enough so an inquisitive visitor can see for himself. Good idea to bring a covered dish.
I say the covered-dish supper is historically a Maine invention. This is true, and sufficiently documented. It was in the summer of 1605, in Sheepscot Bay, that our first authentic covered-dish supper was served and the pattern established. Capt. George Weymouth and his crew aboard the vessel Archangel had sailed from England that May to seek a place for an English settlement in Maine. They had explored the coast of Maine and had agreed on several possible sites, and now the captain wanted to catch a few Indians and carry them to England for exhibition. He did that, and captured five Pemaquid braves - one of them was the Sachem Squantum, who later would welcome the Pilgrims to Plymouth. But Captain Weymouth had a bit of trouble getting any Indians close enough to catch, because they well recalled bad treatment by earlier explorers, Cortoreal for one.
So when two Indians came in a canoe, Weymouth gave them each a bowl of ``pease,'' hoping this would ease their reluctance and bring them aboard to be grabbed. These were field peas, dried, and staple on shipboard, but new to the Indians. The Indians liked peas but wouldn't eat close by the Archangel and paddled ashore. On the beach they ate the peas, and James Rosier, the historian of the Weymouth voyage, says they came the next morning to return the two pewter bowls.
Which is important. If you come and look, you'll see that every casserole in Friendship has a label stuck to the bottom with its owner's name. We still do it Indian style - next morning all the covered dishes get returned.
Which provides wisely for other covered-dish suppers to come.