Aside from appearing at venerable restaurants such as Durgin-Park and Union Oyster House, and at church suppers around New England, Boston baked beans - which gives this town its nickname - is not a common menu item. Still, making beans from scratch has been an enduring ritual of the region and one that continues today.
Chef Frank McClelland grew up in New Hampshire during the 1960s eating baked beans. “My grandmother, an incredible cook, would make her own recipe for Saturday night’s dinner,’’ he says. “My favorite way to enjoy the beans was as leftovers for Sunday brunch.’’ The family would make sausage with whatever meat they had, he says, and round out the meal with maple syrup, and corn fritters or buttermilk biscuits. The owner of L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre restaurants carries on the tradition at home today. “I still serve them to my family. I probably make [some kind of] beans once a week.’’
Most baked bean recipes share the same basic ingredients: dried pea-size beans (commonly labeled navy beans), molasses, and salt pork or bacon. Some cooks include onion, brown sugar, or dry mustard. They can be cooked in the oven, on a stovetop, or in a beanpot in a fireplace.
Molasses is what makes Boston baked beans unique, says Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation. “The molasses imported in the 19th century was extraordinary and most of it was used for making rum,’’ she says. The term “Boston baked beans’’ didn’t enter the nomenclature until the mid-19th century, when Boston’s role as a rum producer was in full swing and molasses was cheap and plentiful.
Molasses was a 19th-century addition, but the bean dish dates to Colonists’ English roots. “Beans are common fare on ships,’’ writes Wall in an e-mail. They were common fare made by working people, she says, “which was just about everybody in the 17th century.’’ Written accounts of pork and beans from English documents date to the 14th century.
Colonists ate beans primarily at their midday dinner but would sometimes eat leftovers for breakfast, explains Wall. She points out an interesting peculiarity with how early settlers stored meat. To preserve pieces of the pig, they were salted and dried, then stored in a variety of places, including hung in the chimney.
For many who grew up in the Boston area in the mid-20th century, beans on Saturday or Sunday was a diehard tradition. May Woodring, of Bristol, R.I., grew up in South Boston in a large family who made weekly pots of beans to go with franks. “It was literally every single Saturday,’’ she says. The night before, “we’d put the beans on a plate and pick out any stones or ugly beans. They’d get rinsed and soaked overnight and cooked all day.’’ She was responsible for keeping watch on the beans so they wouldn’t dry out. “That would be a disaster,’’ she says.
During the war years, David Murray’s mother rented spare rooms to boarders in their Watertown house. On Saturdays when she made beans, “the smell would go wafting through the house,’’ he recalls. “The boarders would be upstairs and come on down and say, ‘That smells good. Do you suppose I could get a bowl?’ She would just give it away, but sometimes people would leave a quarter.’’
Susan Tucker of Somerville was born to New England parents who lived in New York until she was 11. She remembers at bean supper on Sundays, “along with the beans came the family stories and the talk about how we’re really not New Yorkers, we really belong in Boston. It was a way of making sure the children understood where they came from.’’ She serves beans to her family on holidays, using a recipe handed down over five generations.
One of the fringe benefits of homemade baked beans is a unique way New Englanders ate leftovers. “I do remember having bean sandwiches with ketchup,’’ says Woodring. “It was delicious!’’ The cold beans were spread on white bread with a variety of condiments. “I should try it [again] one of these days to see if it still tastes good,’’ she says.
There’s a myth surrounding baked beans that Plimoth’s Wall wishes she could dispel. In the ’60s, a story emerged that the Colonists had learned to make beans from Native Americans, who supposedly used maple syrup and bear fat in a clay pot submerged in a pit covered with hot stones. This isn’t true, she says, although the legend made its way into cookbooks and onto the Internet, where it is now widely quoted.
Wall makes beans at home if she finds a good piece of salt pork but admits to modern convenience. “In the end, we liked the ones from the can best. We’re hopeless peasants. What can I say?’’
Woodring, too, rarely makes beans from scratch anymore. Once she had children, it was more convenient to buy the canned variety. Grocery store options include Bush’s and Van Camp’s brands, which each offer nine varieties, and six from B&M.
But tradition looms large, admits Wall. “Once you can buy them in cans you become incredibly nostalgic for how they used to be cooked, whether or not you used to eat them that way.’’