At Cote’s in Lowell, beans reign supreme
LOWELL – Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, Saturday means franks and beans. At least it does at Cote’s Market, a fourth-generation family business that’s occupied the same spot on Salem Street, in the Acre, for almost 100 years.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of customers files in and owner Roger Levasseur, who runs the place with his son Kurt, greets most by name. “I’ve been coming here since the age of 6,” says Don Baribeault, who grew up two blocks away but now comes from Dracut for a bean fix three or four times a month.
Besides groceries and candy bars, you can buy beans here any day of the week (except Sundays and Wednesdays, when the store is closed), though Saturday is peak. “Bean boy” Kevin Brunelle, who works behind the counter, scoops out some 300 pounds a week — and yes, scooping out beans is all he does. In the basement, down a staircase with treads worn smooth by nearly 100 years’ use, are tons of California small white beans, awaiting their time. At the moment, the Levasseurs store about 1,600 25-pound bags. They have to be small whites, and they have to be aged for a year, or, says Kurt, “They get mushy.”
Roger Levasseur’s grandfather, Joseph Elphege Cote, came from Saint-Elphege, Quebec, and opened Cote’s Market in 1917, offering mostly meat and groceries. Unlike his French ancestors might have pronounced it, Levasseur’s family calls the store Cote’s, as in KO-dees.
When their moment arrives, the dry beans are hauled upstairs on a special elevator that’s something like a large dumbwaiter. They go into big barrels that a family member salvaged years ago from one of the local mills. From there, it’s into the pot: Levasseur measures 8 pounds by dipping an enormous metal scoop twice into the barrel. Next, three pounds of rich, unctuous salt pork from Canada, a squirt of ketchup, and “water up to here,” says Levasseur, pointing to a certain point on the pot. After 10 hours or so in the big Blodgett ovens, the beans are good to go.
These are “light beans” — so called for their color, not their calorie content — and they’re quite different from the usual dark, sweet, sticky Boston baked beans. Levasseur makes those, too, but the light beans outsell the dark by a wide margin. Customers can ask for light beans “with” or “without” — that is, with or without chunks of salty, gelatinous pork fat that have a spreadable consistency after their long hours in the oven. Most, hewing to tradition, opt for “with.”
Yes, it’s insanely fatty and salty, and if you’re looking for food that’s light, trendy, health-conscious, and/or vegetarian, look elsewhere. Although beans are Cote’s main claim to fame, that’s not all they prepare here — not by a long shot. Where else will you find, for instance, pork scrap, also known as creton or croton, a French-Canadian specialty of finely ground pork, fat, and spices, a kind of rough pate? Or Chinese pie, another French Canadian dish, a variation on shepherd’s pie putatively named for China, Maine? The Levasseurs make brown bread to go with the beans; half a dozen kinds of soup; stuffed peppers; stuffed cabbage; pork pies and salmon pies and fruit pies and whoopie pies the size of a baby’s head; grape-nut pudding; corned beef (2,000 pounds on St. Patrick’s Day, gray only, and Roger corns it himself); and quite a bit more. Says Kurt, “My brother counted, and we have 285 home-cooked items available every day or upon request.” Roger Levasseur, who grows 60 heirloom tomato plants at home and uses the fruits at the shop for sauce and such, arrives at work by 1 a.m. most days to get the cooking under way.
A longtime customer — there scarcely seems to be any other kind — walks up to the counter behind the loaded refrigerator case and asks for a pound of “the world’s best hamburger.” Levasseur takes an enormous slab of beef round from the walk-in and cuts off a chunk, trimming nearly all the fat. (He’ll keep some of the fat, of course, if the customer wishes.) He grinds it by hand, wraps it up, and hands it off to shopper Philip Rioux, who says, “No other place cuts it fresh. You can’t get it any better.” He’ll use it, he says, for meatloaf or American chop suey.
Outside, the rain is pelting down, and customers come in dripping wet. Though Levasseur says business is always best on rainy days, most shoppers seem to be in a routine that’s weather-proof.
“Rain or shine, I’m here every week,” says Faith Polk. “You’ve got to try the beans.”
Cote’s Market, 175 Salem St., Lowell, 978-458-4635.
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.