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October 15, 2009

Baked Beans: What You Need to Know

There are two things at least that you need to know about baked beans in Maine. One is that they ought to be made from large, and preferably colorful, Maine-grown beans like Jacobs Cattle, Soldier, Yellow Eye. The only smallish bean is the small all-brown Marifax beloved Down East. The little white Navy beans are for southern New England. The other thing is that a genuine, traditional baked bean in Maine is not very sweet. It used to be in the old days (early 1800s) that a quart of dried beans after they were soaked was adorned with two large spoonfuls of molasses. That isn’t much at all.

I theorize that beans weren’t sweetened to an excruciating degree until baked beans became a cannery product. Since canneries didn’t really bake them but rather stewed them in large cauldrons, and because the bean of choice was often a big white Great Northern the beans never achieved that deep ruddy brown of a truly baked, already dark-skinned Maine bean. If you add molasses it darkens them up. The tip off came from an old timer on Islesboro where I live.

Ralph Gray told me that his mother used to make traditional, un-sweet beans in her old bean pot and all was well until Ralph and his siblings ate canned baked beans at a friends house. “We loved those sweet beans,” he said, “We pestered our mother till she bought them.” Chalk one up for commerce.

Ralph liked baked beans on Saturday night, and he liked them with hot dogs, brown bread, and pickles, and maybe coleslaw. Saturday night baked beans is something Mainers share with most of New England, as Baked Bean Suppers across the state demonstrate.

Some sort of salt meat—ham, hot dogs, sausage—are beans’ natural accompaniment, now that the pork in beans is such a teeny little square. It used to be a handsome one pound piece of good streaky pork was the right thing to put in the pot but most modern people can’t metabolize that much fat, or shouldn’t try, and we don’t have the taste any more for squishy fat that our ancestors did. Brown bread, made with three whole grains (rye, Graham flour or whole wheat, and cornmeal) and molasses to eat with the beans means that legumes and grains make a whole protein, so the meat isn’t even that necessary.

You do have to sleep with the windows open though.

Sandy Oliver is a Food Historian, Author, MF&L columnist: The Way Things Were.

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