My Midwest friends probably think I’m joking when I talk about the importance of baked beans in the Northeast. The breakfast buffet at the Atlantica Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia this morning was primarily baked beans. People were putting it on eggs and on waffles. There was bacon and sausage in it! The beans were sweeter than I make them, but full of maple flavor and perfectly cooked from scratch. You can’t get away with canned beans in this part of the world. Look at how dark they are in the photo. That’s the sign of a good bean!
I’ve made tons of baked beans. They are a food I grew up on, one that defined the preferences of New Englanders and Maritimes Canadians of a certain age, along with clam cakes, lobster meat, cranberries, rhubarb, top-cut hot dog rolls, sweet red pepper relish, and maple syrup (often candied on snow). These were now restaurant foods, but in my youth these were eaten in the home, often because they were the only kind available (the rolls), were inexpensive (the lobster), were easily scaled to feed a crowd (the clam cakes), were seasonal delicacies that should not be missed (rhubarb, cranberries, syrup on snow), or were stocked in every refrigerator (the relish). Each one has its own history (clam cakes were a Portuguese fritter originally made with rehydrated salt cod) and is own path into the Northeast diet (for the role of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain in the origins of the top cut bun, see this Boston Globe article). Baked beans are no exception. However, they should not be confused with British “baked” beans that are eaten as part of a full breakfast. Those have a different genealogy involved the canning industry and the globalization of food branding.
Baked beans are the epitome of Northeastern frugality, a quality etched into the region’s cultural DNA by the demands of settler farming and hardscrabble fisheries. Dried beans are known throughout the world at least since the Neolithic. Dried beans are often cooked with savory flavors to produce a “relish” to accompany some form of starch. The dish uses a small white bean, variously called a Navy Bean, or a Pea Bean. The bean is rehydrated and cooked until tender. The texture will not change in the next step. The beans are then combined with a basic sauce made of molasses or dark amber maple syrup, chopped onions, chopped cured fatty pork, mustard powder, salt and black pepper. Subsequent immigrants to the region have adopted this base to include other flavors: brown sugar, garlic, tomatoes, smoked meats, smoked fish, or herbs, but none of these add-ins were used for the dish by the settlers and fisherfolk. The beans are then put in a thick-walled ceramic pot and placed in a bread oven to bake under residual heat overnight. The oven is hot at the beginning of the time and cool at the end. The beans are closely associated with weekly bread baking. Like bread, the beans are baked in sufficient quality to last most of the week. The acids in the molasses and the sugars reduce bacterial growth. In this way, the fuel necessary to heat the ovens produces two high nutrient foods. Beans on toast, anyone?
The experience of eating a well baked bean is among the great pleasures of my life. Each bean becomes a flavor delivery vehicle, having absorbed the bitter, sweet, salt and umani of the sauce. There is no sour component. This in itself makes the dish peculiar as a relish. The fats from the cured pork go into suspension with the starches dissolving from the beans to generate a thickened gravy. Every once in a while you get a bit of onion or pork to break the texture of the beans. The aroma is an unctious mix of molasses (or maple) and onion. It is not a dish to eat hot. The heat masks the flavors. It is best enjoyed ‘off-warm’ (~120°), at room temp (~70°), or even cold (~45°). At these temperatures, the flavors peak, although saltiness is more pronounced in the cold dish than it is at warmer presentations.
Unlike Proust’s madeleines, eating baked beans does not stir my memories of times past. It is more like the experience of terroir when drinking wine. It cannot be faked. You either know the earth in which the grapes were grown, or you do not; whatever you think you are tasting in bottles from places where you haven’t eaten the foods, smelled the rot of the leaves in the fall or the earth after a rain, inhaled the the pollen of early summer, and baked in the heat of high season, is a fantasy. When you know a place that well, there is something in the wine that immediately brings you to that place. That happens for me when I drink wines from the Wachau and the Kamptal in Austria, two regions where I “know” the earth, and it happens for me with baked beans. Terroir is often characterised as ineffable by wine enthusiasts. I disagree. It’s as clear as the nose on your face. But it does require you to have been there.