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Baked Bean Suppers

August 20, 2001

"Now let me get this right - the church feeds all these people beans on Saturday night at this 'bean supper' and then expects them all to gather together in one room the next day for church services? What am I not understanding about this Maine fascination with beans?"

Linda Swenson, visiting Sebago from Utah and being introduced to a Maine bean supper for the first time

They are perhaps a uniquely New England tradition. If they are common elsewhere around the country, I am not aware of it. I am talking, of course, about the custom common in New England of sitting down to a family-style meal of baked beans and the fixin's. Sure, you can find baked beans all up and down the east coast, and into the midwest as well - but as a side dish, not as the main course!

It is hard to place where or when this custom began. One story claims that bean suppers began around the time of the American Revolution, to honor Washington's troops at Valley Forge who only had beans and sausages to eat. That seems a little far-fetched, and I've never heard anyone stand up at a bean supper and propose a moment of silence to honor George's brave boys in mufti and frozen feet.

Another story has baked beans starting with the pilgrims, when cooking on the Sabbath was prohibited. The beans and Brown Bread were baked the night before, then heated to piping hot the next day. Of course, some folks traditionally have baked beans for Saturday night supper, so I don't know how that all fits.

Perhaps the baked bean custom simply began as a good, practical Yankee way of making a little go a long way. In these rock-bound hills in New England it would be out of character to have an ox roast, or to barbeque up a mess of ribs, or to have a chili cook-off. Can you see Calvin Coolidge at the end of the banquet table carving up a steamship round of roast beef? Not hardly.

But beans - everyone grows them, they are cheap and plentiful, and a whole meal can be made for a few pennies. A supper of beans is no stranger than having baked beans for breakfast - which a lot of New Englanders still do. In the best diners in New England you can buy a side of baked beans, served in a little brown pot. Now of course, these beans probably are out of a can rather than being cooked the proper way, but the thought is still there.

Some cook whose name has been lost to time was probably the first person to try cooking beans with molasses for a different taste. The Boston Online FAQ says beans slow-baked in molasses have been a favorite Boston dish since colonial days, when the city was "awash in molasses" due to its rum-producing role in the "triangular trade." Sugar cane harvested by slaves in the West Indies was shipped to Boston to be made into rum to be sent to West Africa to buy more slaves to send to the West Indies. Even after slavery's end, Boston continued to be a big rum-producing city. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, which killed 21 and injured 150, occurred when a tank holding molasses for rum production exploded. Beans baked in molasses continue to be popular in New England despite the accident, however.

There is a baked bean supper somewhere
in Maine every week of the summer

They are good fund-raisers
for local groups

Traditionally there are always two kinds of beans at a baked bean supper - red kidney beans and white beans (usually California pea beans or Great Northern beans these days). These must start as dried, hard beans (nothing from a can, please!) which are soaked in water overnight. They are then slow cooked in a low oven for hours.

Every cook worth their salt adds their own "secret" ingredients to give the final product a distinctive taste. Molasses is a main ingredient of all New England baked beans, as are mustard, salt and pepper. Some cooks add Worcestershire sauce, others curry, and others rum.

All New England cooks agree that no one adds tomato juice or tomato sauce to baked beans! The idea of tomato juice or tomato sauce in New England baked beans is as foreign as that adulterated red-colored stuff that they brew up in Manhattan and try to pass off as clam chowder.

Baked Bean Recipes

Ask your typical Mainer about Massachusetts folks and you usually will get an earful - often not real complementary. We sometimes forget that Massachusetts was once a part of Maine. Besides, we Mainers know good baked beans when we taste 'em, and when it comes to beans, the folks in Boston can cook up a pot full with the best. So don't speak too harshly about the "Massachusetts fellers", at least when you're talking about baked beans.

Here is a recipe for baked beans from the Durgin-Park Restaurant in Boston, where you can get insulted by the waiters and fed great food at the same time.

Durgin-Park Restaurant Baked Beans
2-quart bean pot
2 pounds dry beans
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 pound salt pork
1 medium-size onion
8 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup molasses
2 teaspoons dry mustard
4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Soak beans overnight. In morning parboil them for ten minutes with a teaspoon of baking soda. Then run cold water through the beans in a colander or strainer. Dice rind of salt port in inch squares, cut in half. Put half on bottom of bean pot with whole onion. Put beans in pot. Put the rest of the pork on top. Mix other ingredients with hot water. Pour over beans. Put in 300-degree oven for six hours. This will make ten full portions.

These notes from the Chief Bean Man, a century-old position which carries the responsibility for preparing beans according to a strict ritual: "You can't let the pot just set in the oven. You've got to add water as necessary to keep the beans moist. And you can't be impatient and add too much water at a time and flood the beans."

And here is a recipe from Grandma Berta's Baked Beans:

Grandma Berta's New England Baked Beans
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 pound dried Great Northern beans
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
4 cups water
1 package salt pork, sliced (about 2 to 4 ounces)

Stir sugar and mustard powder together in small bowl. Gradually add cider vinegar; stir to dissolve. Cover and let stand in refrigerator overnight or 8 hours.
Soak beans overnight or 8 hours in pot in 4 cups water with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Bring water to boil and cook beans in water for 30 minutes over high heat.
Simmer beans until tender. Beans will "give" when pressed with a spoon. Drain, reserving water.
Spread beans in 13-by-9-inch pan. Slice salt pork and lay evenly over top of beans, with spaces between pork.
Drizzle prepared sauce (sugar-mustard-vinegar mixture) between salt pork, saving a small amount to drizzle over top of salt pork. Add a little bean water to corners of pan, until water is barely visible over surface of beans. Reserve remaining water.
Cover beans tightly and bake at 325 degrees for about 3 hours. Add extra bean water as needed to keep beans moist. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

The best baked beans are made in bean pots - a squat, shouldered pot with handle, and with a close fitting lid with a button on top to pick the lid up with. They seem always to be glazed in a bean brown on the bottom half of the pot, with a cream or light brown top half. Baked bean pots are heavy and sturdy, and are meant to be filled with beans and put right in the oven to cook. They come in all sizes, but the most popular is the two quart size - just right for a Saturday night family supper at home.

Leona Greene's recipe for baked beans is used to cook the beans served at the Sebago Ladies Fire Auxilliary bean suppers. Exactly what is in her recipe is a closely-held secret, but they are good. You can taste her beans at any of the several suppers that Rita and her crew put on at the old Town Hall during the summer.

Baked beans are slow cooked
in the oven for hours

Family-style serving bowls
are ladeled full of beans

Baked Beans have to be served with brown bread

Some bean suppers you go to will try and pass off dinner rolls or cornbread as a side dish. Any Yankee knows, however, that these are poor substitutes indeed for the only proper accompaniment to baked beans - hot, steaming brown bread.

Brown bread is made from brown flour or rye flour, with a liberal dose of molasses and loaded with raisins. Most of the brown bread you see at suppers is round, as it comes out of a can. Most grocery stores in New England carry the stuff. The best brown bread, however, is home made. Here are a couple of recipes that sound pretty good:

Boston Brown Bread
1 c corn meal, sifted
2 c whole wheat flour, unsifted
2 t baking soda
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 c raisins, parboiled
3/4 c molasses
2 c buttermilk or sour milk

Combine corn meal and flour with baking soda and salt; sift together.
Stir in the parboiled raisins, which you have dried off with paper towel.
Combine molasses and milk, add to flour mixture.
Steam in three well greased covered one quart molds, filled 2/3 full so as to allow room for expansion, for 3 hours.
Uncover molds and bake in a 250 F oven for 25-30 min.
Re-steam any of the loaves not used immediately after baking before serving.

Brown Bread in a Can
Sift together 1 cup sifted rye flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon soda, and 1 teaspoon salt;
stir in 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon allspice.
Add 2 cups buttermilk, 1 cup raisins, and 3/4 cup dark molasses; beat well.

Divide batter among 4 greased and floured 16-ounce fruit or vegetable cans (labels removed).
Cover tightly with foil.
Place on rack in deep kettle; add boiling water to depth of 1 inch (cans should not be resting in water). Cover;
steam 3 hours, adding more boiling water if needed.

Bread is done when it has risen almost to fill the can and the center has puffed slightly. (If center remains indented, steam 15 minutes or so more). Cool 10 minutes. Remove bread, best done by removing bottom of can and pushing bread out of can. Wrap; store overnight. Makes 4.

And What Are "Red Dogs"?

I never saw them when we lived in California, nor in Michigan. But it is impossible to go to a baked bean supper in Maine without running into a platter of red dogs. These are natural casing hot dogs with a brilliant red food coloring. Like most natural casing sausages they come in a long string all hooked together.

Rita approached me soon after we moved full-time to Sebago. She was making the arrangments for one of the several baked bean suppers that the Ladies Auxiliary put on each year.

"I've got you down for a pound of hot dogs for the supper." she said "Do you want to bring red dogs or regular dogs?"

I'd had red dogs at some of the suppers I'd been to, and really liked their flavor over that of "regular" hot dogs. "We'll bring red dogs" I said

"We'll need them at the kitchen by 3:30 the day of the supper" Rita said "That gives the cooks enough time to get them ready in time for our 5:30 pm first sitting."

Bean Supper Etiquette

Maine bean suppers are served family style, and people start lining up before the doors open so that they can be fed with the first sitting. Depending on how many places have been set at the long tables, enough folks are let in to fill every seat. The rest wait outside, or at the North Sebago Methodist Church suppers, get to wait in the sanctuary until the first sitting has had their fill and a second sitting is taken in. As the evening goes on, late arrivals are allowed in to fill in any open seats. When all the paying customers have been fed, the help gets to sit down and eat their fill.

Money is collected at the door - usually $5 or $6 for the all-you-can-eat meal. After eating your fill of beans, brown bread, red dogs, cole slaw and salads, the desserts are brought out. Every baked bean supper has a staggering array of home made pies, or fresh strawberry shortcake, or some speciality. I haven't run across one that offers Indian Pudding (a particular favorite of mine), but I keep hoping and looking.

Lorie Hastings up in Columbia, NH, made the observation that the thing that seemed oddest to her was the apple pies for dessert. When she first moved from her home in Idaho, she worked her way through the main courses at her first New England baked bean supper without any problem. When offered dessert, she asked for apple pie, expecting a dollop of ice cream with it, or at least some whipped cream. When it came, however, it had a big slab of sharp cheese on the plate next to the pie. She really didn't know what to do with this - she'd never seen the combination of sweet pie and sharp cheese before. She had discovered another New England oddity.

Red Dogs are natural casing hot dogs
with a distinctive red coloring

Bean suppers are always
served family style

Penny found the red dogs in one of the local grocery stores - there are several different brands - and they got delivered to the kitchen at the appointed time. When I dropped them off, I was naive enough to ask if there was anything I could do to help out, and was immediately put to work. As a "trainee" I was allowed to bus tables and bring the dirty dishes to the kitchen. Over several suppers, I have been allowed additional tasks with more responsibility - I now can put down fresh paper on the tables from the roll of white butcher paper and can set the tables for the next sitting. I can break down tables and stack the chairs on the racks. The last time, I worked my way up and was allowed to carry around a water pitcher and refill people's glasses. Maybe I can get promoted to serving coffee next time - if I work hard and am careful. I will never get to work in the kitchen cooking or doing food prep, however, unless some people die or retire - there are too many in line in front of me.

There are two pleasant side benefits of working the suppers - you get to socialize with just about everybody in town, and if there are any left overs the crew divides them up and takes them home. I still have some sausages in the freezer from the Maple Syrup Sunday Breakfast, and several containers of pea beans from one of the bean suppers this summer. When we had company over last weekend, it was easy to pull out a quart of home-made baked beans and warm them up to serve with supper.

By the way, you will hardly ever find a baked bean "dinner". They are always "suppers". Fancy folks go out to "dinner", but the rest of us up here in Maine prefer the more informal and friendly "supper" where we can gather with friends and neighbors to socialize and sample some of the best regional cooking you'll find anywhere. The next time you see an ad in the paper or a road-side sign advertising a Baked Bean Supper - make a point to drop by and try it out. If you go away hungry, it is your own fault!

Oh, and try and be early so you can get in on the first sitting.

Here are some recipes for baked beans:

What's Cooking - Durgin Park's Recipe.
Boston Baked Beans and Brown Bread
It's Not Called Beantown for Nothing!
Baked beans are at heart of reunions
Boston Brown Bread

My thanks to Russ Voss and Lorie Hastings for reviewing the recipes in this journal entry.

Allen Crabtree

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Last updated August 31, 2001

Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree