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.
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.
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:
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 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:
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.
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.
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Last updated August 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree