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April 1, 2007
Column

The Baked Bean Bonus

by Sandy Oliver

That cold spell in March that came just as I was beginning to give up on winter altogether and gird myself for mud season paid out a bonus in baked beans. Cheapskate Yankee that I am, there is something about long slow baking in an electric oven (with the meter running) that goes against my grain. It rules out baked beans unless I have other baking to do, too, or unless I am really hungry for them. But when it is cold out -- single numbers and teens -- our friend, the kitchen stove, is blazing away, and the back corner of the oven nearest the firebox achieves exactly the right temperature for baked beans and a pan of Indian pudding. Meanwhile on top of the stove, if we are in the mood for more molasses, a steamer of brown bread bubbles away.

All that molasses and whole grain, all those beans, wreak havoc in our digestive systems -- but it sure tastes good going down.

When Jamie and I were first married, I didn't know beans. Since my husband grew up in Maine he had a strong preference for the big beans like yellow eyes, or Jacobs cattle or soldier beans. I only knew about Navy beans or pea beans, the little beans of my Southern New England childhood, which he viewed contemptuously. I have been a contented convert to big beans, and now greet Maine-grown and packaged beans with joy.

A few years ago I was introduced to Marafax beans, slightly smaller than some of the big beans, but a lovely brown even before you bake them. We in the Midcoast could still find them in chain grocery stores until about seven or eight years ago but they gradually disappeared until we could only find them sold in bulk at various co-ops. On a visit Downeast last fall, I bought up several pounds of some I found in a combination hardware and whole foods store in Machias. It was a batch of these that I put to soak when I heard that cold air was on its way.

I have three bean pots. My biggest came from Owls Head many years ago. A good size for a party or potluck, it'll hold two pounds of beans soaked. I have a small one, good for a supper for four, then the middle sized one, the one I use most, does us two or three suppers and baked beans on toast with onion and cheese under the broiler for lunch. I like having leftover beans, which is essentially what canned beans are. Late in the wood cook stove baking season, I make enough to freeze some for summer eating with hot dogs on the grill.

Now the secret to beans, in my opinion, is not too much sweetening. Not many know this, but 200 years ago, our baked beans had scarcely any molasses or sugar in them at all. Common recipes called for two large spoonfuls of molasses to a quart, that's four cups, of dried beans soaked. I tried cutting back on the sweetening at our house, then realized one time, I'd gone too far when Jamie went and got the jug of molasses to improve the situation. I remember Ralph Gray, one of our old-timers, now passed away, telling me about "sweet beans." Seems when he was growing up, his mom made the older-fashioned sort without much sweetening. Ralph got a taste of sweet canned baked beans at a friend's house, and commenced pestering his mother to get the canned beans henceforth.

Canned beans weren't and still aren't really baked. Most are actually stewed in large cauldrons and often are made with a white bean like Great Northerns or navy beans, as they have been for about a hundred years, and need molasses to get them to that lovely brown color we are accustomed to. Recipes from roughly the 1880s into the 1900s show how quickly extra sweetening became the norm for home baked beans. Of course, if you start with a nice brown bean to begin with, you can bake a bean that is a rich mahogany color, and you don't need so much molasses. A few people still understand this. We had breakfast in Machias and I ordered the baked beans on the menu; I was delighted to find a nice savory bean, just lightly sweetened. Gosh, they were good.

So I put my soaked beans in a pan on top of the stove, and let it come to a boil. They bubbled away while I did other chores, until a spoonful lifted out and, blown upon, showed the time-honored "bursted skins" peeling back. I put them in the middle-sized pot, with a little chunk of our own salt pork, and a dollop of molasses, a small onion peeled and a bit of dried mustard, then added enough of the cooking water to show through the top-most beans. The lid on, the pot shoved into the back of the oven, and largely ignored for the rest of the day. The oven, when the stove is run at room-warming temperature, is slow enough that evaporation is very gradual and I add more cooking liquid only occasionally. Of course, it is nicer if I remember to take the lid off and pull the pork to the top of the pot to brown a bit at the last, but I have forgotten and the beans were still pretty good.

Robert P. Tristram Coffin declared in his 1944 Mainstays of Maine that beans baked weekly on Saturday were "the cornerstone of New England's civic serenity and domestic righteousness." He recommended chasing everyone out of the kitchens -- kids, relatives, cats and dogs -- in order to build a pot of beans with no distraction from the all-important process of picking, sorting, soaking, parboiling, salt porking, onioning, seasoning and sweetening, or not sweetening. It's a good thing he had his tongue in his cheek -- at least I hope it was -- when he wrote that, because I like good beans and I'll take them seriously. But if my domestic righteousness and our island's civic serenity relies on my beans, we are in big trouble as soon as the outdoor temperature rises. q

Sandy Oliver cooks and writes on Islesboro.

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