RFD Maine — Beans, Baked, Bean-Hole and Otherwise
Along about this time of year, people get a hankering for home-baked beans. Probably this happens because harvest time draws near and just like the first meal of new potatoes, most everyone has a longing for some baked beans, fresh ones from the current season.
For those who have never made baked beans, freshness of the beans ranks higher in importance than amounts of components in a recipe. Some might use more or less brown sugar and others will skimp on molasses because they feel too much molasses toughens beans. And some quarter their onions, while another crowd prefers using onions whole in the recipe. But none of this matters if the beans are not fresh.
Then we have types of beans. Yellow eye, a perennial favorite, takes first place in most bean-lover’s hearts. Jacob’s cattle comes in a close second, while great northern and navy beans sit at the bottom of the ladder.
Baked beans often take center stage at public suppers. In the not-too-distant past, grange halls throughout the state featured annual baked bean suppers. But the Grange, like so many other fraternal organizations, has difficulty in recruiting new members and as numbers shrink, many grange halls get shuttered and eventually, many get torn down.
Still, lots of grange halls remain and many keep tradition alive by hosting their wonderful, public baked-bean suppers. Some, in fact, have become legend because of the high quality of their baked beans.
I recall the old Belmont Grange Hall being the site of well-known public suppers. These were known far and wide and people flocked to them. And beans were always on the menu. The hall is long gone, but I bet lots of people recall fondly hours spent there chowing down on homemade baked beans.
Also, other groups have taken up the cause and these, too, feature annual bean suppers. Lots of small towns today host public bean suppers. It pleases me, in my travels around the state, to see signs proclaiming an upcoming bean supper. The public bean supper in Maine is alive and doing well, with no sign of disappearing in the near future.
For the very concept of baked beans, we have Native Americans to thank. These people cooked their beans in holes dug in the ground, where hardwood was burned down to coals and the bean pot put in to simmer for hours and hours, a primitive version of today’s slow-cooker.
European colonists, knowing a good thing when they saw it, were quick to adopt the bean hole. And although bean-hole beans were born of necessity, the process was never abandoned when easier methods came around. In fact, some bean-hole bean cooks became legends in their own time.
Old-time lumber camps made much use of the bean hole. Cooking for a large group was never easy and the “Cookie” took advantage of the bean hole as a way to prepare a large batch of beans all at once.
In many people’s minds, bean-hole bean cookery represents the epitome of cooking methods for dried beans. Some feel that beans prepared this way acquire a faint taste of wood smoke. But that hardly seems possible, since if the cooking vessel had access for smoke to come in, it would also serve as an easy exit point for liquid to boil out. Still, it’s nice to imagine a smoky taste to bean-hole beans.
One annual bean-hole-bean bash happens at Leonard’s Mill in Bradley, Maine. Each October, Living History Days at this restored 1790s logging community features lots of old-time events and crafts, not the least of which (and perhaps the most popular) is the bean hole.
It’s a long way to go from Waldo to Bradley for some beans. But these are such good beans that I’m considering taking a trip up there this fall. Bean-hole beans are that special.
Baked bean recipes abound. Mine, an old standard, uses all the traditional ingredients. To make beans according to this recipe, collect the following:
2 pounds dry, yellow eye or Jacob’s cattle beans
2 large onions, quartered
½ cup brown sugar
½ pound salt pork, cut up into thumb-sized pieces
2 teaspoons unsulphured molasses
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Next, soak the beans overnight in a large bowl, adding water as they rehydrate. The next morning, drain, rinse and drain again. This removes the starch. Place the beans, along with the other ingredients, in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Then place all ingredients in a covered bean pot and after filling with water to a few inches of the top, bake in an oven at 250 degrees for 6 to 8 hours. Alternately, place in a slow-cooker set at low and allow to cook for at least 8 hours. Cooking times may vary according to altitude and degree of freshness of the beans. Fresh beans cook up sooner, old beans may never become tender enough for pleasant eating.
This brings up buying dry beans from the store. Sometimes, commercially-offered beans are as fresh as those bought at the local farmstand. And oftentimes they are not. My method here is to buy a single bag and try them. If they seem fresh, then I’ll go back and buy several more bags. These should remain good at least throughout the winter and perhaps, for up to a year.
A safer way to acquire fresh beans is to buy direct from a farmer or from a stand that sells fresh-picked beans. That way, freshness is guaranteed.
So what goes with fresh-baked beans? Well, some may add hot dogs but indeed, we’ve already got the meat portion covered by virtue of the salt pork used in the recipe. The next, and this is a necessary accessory to any bean meal, is biscuits. My favorite biscuit recipe is from the back of the Bakewell Cream can. This isn’t the only good biscuit recipe, but it is one of the better ones. Bakewell Cream, by the way, is a leavening agent compounded in Maine, making it as close to home-grown as possible.
The third necessary ingredient in a baked bean meal is homemade Cole slaw. Beans, biscuits and Cole slaw. Simple, yet elegant and for sure, a great old Maine tradition.