Friday, September 03, 2010

Baked beans.

Yesterday’s post reminded me that I have hardly touched the topic of baked beans in this blog. I have featured two baked bean recipes in the past, one from 1877 and one from 1943, but neither of these was for Boston baked beans – which, I understand from my limited discussions with friendly Bostonians, are the real thing.

Where I hail from, baked beans come in a can (courtesy of Mr. Heinz), are an orangey-red colour due to their coating of tomato sauce, and are essential to a traditional, full English breakfast. I realise now in my maturity that the baked beans that I grew up on may not speak to authenticity in the matter, so I - upstart outsider that I am - decided to seek the truth on Boston baked beans, and provide for you an authentic, original recipe.

I do understand now that I have bitten off more than I can chew, if you will pardon the pun, in the matter of authenticity as it relates to baked beans. It appears that passions can be easily aroused on the subject, and that there are, in fact, almost as many authentic recipes as there are cooks in their country of origin.

The country of origin is, of course, presumed to be America, and the original cooks its original inhabitants, who taught the technique to the migrants/colonists/invaders. It is difficult to sort out the truth from the pretty legend here, and I eagerly await enlightenment from you, dear readers.

The original inhabitants and their early international visitors clearly used the local beans - but pulses have long been a staple in Europe, and migrants/colonists/invaders take their familiar recipes and preferences with them and adapt them as they need to. For the English, pease cooked slowly (with some bacon, if available) were a staple. And what about the French? Did they not adapt their cassoulet when they went to America?

My favourite interpretation of the story of 'American' baked beans (I do hope that it is true) is that the native American method of cooking the native beans was to mix them with bear fat and maple syrup and slow-cook them in earthen or deerskin ‘pots.’ The early Pilgrims did not allow cooking on the Sabbath, so the slow cooking method suited them perfectly as the pot of beans could be left to cook on the back of the stove the previous night, and eaten next day without any further attention.

Next questions. Why the ‘Boston’ connection? And what is specific about ‘Boston’ baked beans? I am bravely entering a mine-field here, folks, so be kind.

The most popular story has it that in the early days, Boston became the centre for rum production, using sugar from the Caribbean. A by-product of the process was molasses, which therefore became the sweetener of choice. So - the early settlers substituted pork for the bear fat, and molasses for the maple syrup, and Voila! Baked beans for breakfast.

The first mention I have found to date specifically for Boston baked beans is in 1800. I feel sure that there are earlier references, and hope that one of you can point me in the direction of a genuine study of the topic. In the meanwhile I give you a recipe which appeared in the Massachusetts Ploughman, in 1847, which was repeated in a number of agricultural journals around the country in that year. An identical recipe was also included in The Improved Housewife: or,Book of Receipts … by Mrs. A.L.Webster, a married lady, published in 1847.

Boston Baked Beans.
The Massachusetts Ploughman gives the following recipe for cooking this famed Yankee dish. We can vouch for its excellence. Take two quarts of middling sized white beans, three pounds of salt pork, and one spoonful of molasses. Pick the beans over carefully, wash and turn about a gallon of soft water to them in a pot; let them soak in it lukewarm over night; set them in the morning where they will boil til the skin is very tender and about to break, adding a teaspoonful of saleratus. Take them up dry, put them in your dish, stir in the molasses, gash the pork and put it down in the dish, so as to have the beans cover all but the upper surface: turn in cold water till the top is just covered; bake and let the beans remain in the oven all night.
[Southern Cultivator, Volumes 6-7, 1847]

Quotation for the Day.

Beans are highly nutritious and satisfying, they can also be delicious if and when properly prepared, and they posses over all vegetables the great advantage of being just as good, if not better, when kept waiting, an advantage in the case of people whose disposition or occupation makes it difficult for them to be punctual at mealtime.
Andre Simon (1877-1970), in The Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy (1952)


Kathryn McGowan said...

I think you did very well Janet. I wrote about this dish a while back and ended up making the version from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook of 1896 which turned out really well. It's a great thing to make when it's really cold out because you basically leave it in the oven on a very low setting all day. Mmmmmm.

Here's how it turned out:

KMWall said...

The slow cook pot, maple syrup/ bear grease hooey is much hooey.Finding a reference much before the 19th century - also unlikely. There are other bean dishes, almost all of them long cooked, from any number of places and peoples, that converge to for the BBB mythos.Small white pea beans - yes; saltpork - yes; molasses-yes; long slow cooking - yes.
Molasses, cheap molasses, is the available in New England since the mid 17th century. Maple syrup doesn't become cheap and readily available until the 20th century. Real BBB NEVER have any maple syrup in them.

Ken Albala said...

Very nice post! Alas, there is no answer to your question of origin though. And the sabbath story I think is bunk.

The Old Foodie said...

Thankyou Kathryn and Ken - I am glad I didnt get it too wrong! I suspect whole theses have been written on the topic, and still the truth is elusive. But the myths are fun.

Ken Scott said...

I, too, think this is a pretty accurate recipe. Molasses was used as the sweetner because it was cheap and available. Anyone raising pigs in an agrarian society would have salt pork available.

When my Boston-based mother was young -- in the early 1900s -- her Sunday church services would last most of the day. A pot of beans in the oven was a reliable way of coming home to a hot meal.

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Ken, for your story. I love it when a story triggers a personal memory for someone, and they are then kind enough to share it with everyone.

Anonymous said...

The secret to Boston baked beans is the pot it's made in and serving it with Boston brown bread. In my mind, the bread has to be made in a tin can.