My historically-minded Citizens – we have most recently finished up the Thanksgiving holiday, a repast replete with repetitive courses of the best kind – there is much to comfort us in these dark times by always knowing what will be on your Turkey Day plate! That said, there is much to recommend an occasional diversion that can embody the HISTORY of the holiday as much as the gustatory familiarity of the end-of-November feast! With that, I wish to share a Colonial-era recipe for Maine bean hole beans!
Whilst it is true this IS indeed from the very earliest days of our country’s founding, it actually precedes it by several MILLENNIA (or at minimum a few centuries) – allow me to start off with a recent news article from a small Maine suburb that (seemingly) has nothing whatsoever to do with Thanksgiving or baked beans – it actually relates to a story about a Hanukkah public holiday display on city grounds during the Israeli retaliation against Hamas!
Here is the story in an excerpted form:
(JTA) – A suburb of Portland, Maine, has removed a Star of David from its annual holiday lights display after a local Arab American citizen complained, reportedly calling it “offensive” in light of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.
But the mayor of Westbrook told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the reason for the star’s removal had more to do with the city’s efforts to follow the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which is understood to forbid overtly religious displays on public property. He added that local Jewish groups agreed it should be taken down and that Hanukkah would still be represented for the first time in the city’s holiday display via a series of dreidels.
“I think it was all positive intent to just try and be more inclusive,” Mayor Michael Foley said, adding that, since the story broke in local media, he had been fielding calls from people accusing him of antisemitism. “There’s been no ill intention by it. It was simply an honest mistake and it was never included on our display.”
Foley said the star had been ordered by a city employee without his knowledge. He added, “I still don’t truly understand” why someone had complained about it, but he had reached out to a local Arab group, the New England Arab American Organization, for advice after the complaint was made.
The Star of David has been widely used by Jewish communities since the 17th century; it has also been used to identify Jews by their adversaries, notably the Nazis. The Star of David is also the centerpiece of the Israeli flag, adopted in October 1948, months after Israel became a country.
“They view it as the city taking a side in the war, we’re supporting one country over another,” Foley said about the citizen that objected to the symbol. Initial reports that the New England Arab American Organization was behind the complaint itself were mistaken, he said.
In a statement Friday after this article’s initial publication, the group’s board also stated that it was not behind the complaint. “NEAAO stands in solidarity with our Jewish community, Arab community and any other community in recognizing their rights for their religious symbols to be displayed on their private properties and on public properties in accordance to local laws,” the statement read. The board added that the organization is “non-religious and non-political.”
As the debate around Israel and Gaza has remained heated since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and Israel’s ensuing war on the terror group in Gaza, even public displays have not been immune to the war. Earlier this week the University of Texas in Dallas removed “spirit rocks” that had been fixtures on campus for years because, administrators said, students were using them to paint increasingly aggressive messages about Israel, Gaza and the Palestinians.
But the presence (or lack thereof) of Jewish symbols in city holiday displays is a much older issue, one that has been litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court. A 1989 case found that the public display of a Nativity scene in a Pittsburgh courthouse was not permissible because it could be interpreted as the city promoting one religion over another, but that the display of a Chabad-Lubavitch menorah was allowed because the city demonstrated pluralism by pairing it with a Christmas tree.
Foley had been hoping to find a similar pluralistic spirit in Westbrook. For the last few years the city sought to expand its holiday display to include Hanukkah and other celebrations, while avoiding having any explicitly religious symbols on the advice of their legal counsel. “We just tried to stick with colors and snowflakes and snowmen and animals,” he said.
City staff decided on dreidels, he said, because they “seemed like a reasonable compromise with members of the community.” This was to be the first year when the dreidels would join the display (Westbrook, which has a population of around 20,000, does not have any synagogues).
So why EXACTLY am I calling out a Jewish story for a Thanksgiving New England recipe?!
Simple – the origin of colonial baked beans may actually be from the Jews (as well as the local Native American tribes!)! As noted in this excerpted article from foodtimeline.org:
Some argue that baked beans were introduced to the colonists by the Indians, but novelist Kenneth Roberts, in an essay on “The Forgotton Marrowbones,” printed in Marjorie Mosser’s Foods of Old New England (1957), argues that baked beans had long been a traditional Sabbath dish among North African and Spanish Jews, who called the dish “skanah.”
…Nevertheless, the dish clearly became associated with Boston, whose Puritan settlers baked beans on Saturday, served them that night for dinner, for Sunday breakfast with codfish cakes and Boston Brown Bread, and again for Sunday lunch, because no other cooking was allowed during the Sabbath, which extended to Sunday evening. Sometimes the housewives would hand over their pots of uncooked beans to a community oven, often located within a tavern, to be baked.
Because of the association between Bostonians and beans, the city became to be called “Bean Town.” A recipe for baked beans of this type was printed in Lydia Maria Child’s “The American Frugal Housewife in 1832, though the term “Boston baked beans” dates to the 1850s.”
There is also an English and Native American component to this dish as well, as noted in the same article:
“According to one recent writer, “baked beans and succotash may be the closest to signature dishes for [New England]–one based on Old World traditions and the other on those of the New World.”…As for the Old World origins of baked beans, peas or beans and bacon have been claimed to be among the oldest of English dishes. Despite the generally low position of beans in English food-status hierarchies, one version of beans and bacon is said to have been enjoyed by the medieval gentry.
The specifically baked form of bean potage was prevalent among Staffordshire yeomen, who soaked their dried beans overnight, then baked them along with honey-and-mustard-cured ham and onions or leeks in a narrow-necked earthenware pot especially reserved for the purpose. This “dark, sweet cassoulet” has been identified as the immediate progenitor of New England baked beans….There is a tradition, that, like succotash, baked beans was of native origin.
“Beans were abundant, and were baked by the Indians in earthen pots just as we bake them today,” wrote Alice Morse Earle in 1898. Three-quarters of a century later, Sally Smith Booth was not the first to include the use of underground beanholes among the native methods of baking beans: “Indians probably originated this dish, for many tribes baked bean stews in earthen pots placed into pit and covered with hot ashes.”
However, as Howard S. Russell has acknowledged, there is no direct evidence of natives’ baking beans, either in earthenware pots or in beanholes in the ground. On the other hand, baked beans “prepared by the bean-hole method were by far the most important single food” in late-nineteenth-century Maine lumbering camps.
A vogue for outdoor and wilderness experience, including culinary experience, that was supposed to approximate the lifeways of the North American Indians, had emerged at this time and gave encouragement to the idea that another form of popular underground New England cookery, the clambake, had originated with the Indians. Similar notions about the native sources of beanhole baked beans may also have germinated in this cultural soil, so to speak.
Skepticism regarding romanticized conception of native and settler culinary practices should not, however, lead us to dismiss altogether the possibility of a relationship between the bean cookery of the two groups…So although the English clearly brought with them a well-established tradition of bean-and-bacon pottage that, in at least one of its variants, was baked in a beanpot in an oven, it is also possible that the natives they encountered upon arrival had a similar tradition of preparing legume pottage by baking.
Morever, the immigrants did not scruple to integrate New World beans into the Old World pottage, just as they incorporated New World grain into their their bread.”
—America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, Keith Stavely & Kathleen Fitzgerald [University of North Carolina Press:Chapel Hill NC] 2004 (p. 51-52)
The original article on Gastro Obscura (excerpted below) that sparked My keen interest in this recipe has this to say about the recipe’s strong association with Maine lumberjacks:
Baked beans had a long history in New England before capitalists used them as a tool to support its deforestation, but in no context were they as indispensable and ubiquitous as in logging camps. They were on the table, in quantity, at two meals daily, minimum. When Henry David Thoreau passed through backwoods Maine 50 years earlier, before the railways eased the challenges of supplying camps, he learned of the much scantier and less reliable diet for loggers—tea, molasses, hard bread, salt pork (sometimes raw), and beans, lots of beans.
He observed dryly: “A great proportion of the beans raised in Massachusetts find their market here.” In the interval between Thoreau’s visits and the University of Maine’s science experiment, not only were hundreds of miles of rail laid, but farmers opened clearings along the rivers, planting beans, potatoes, corn, and turnips, and raising dairy and meat animals, all to supply the ready market of the lumber camps.
The lumber camp and the bean-hole
While a single, long, log-built structure provided virtually all the domestic accommodation for a 50- to 60-man camp—dormitory, cookroom, dining hall, and food storage—only one daily function, besides the outhouse, warranted its own structure, and that was the lean-to protecting the bean-hole. Each day a cookee (the cook’s helper) would fire up the pit and parboil a batch of soaked beans over the cookroom fire—just until the skin would wrinkle when blown upon.
He’d then layer them in the bean kettle with salt pork, onions, and maybe dry mustard, drizzle on a big spoonful of molasses, put the lid on tight, bury the kettle in the bean-hole under hot coals and dirt, and leave it to be dug up before breakfast next day. Then, he’d do it all again.
Much has been written over the last century about lumberjacks, including that they ate a lot of beans, but many of these accounts come in anecdotal form burnished by a nostalgic romance (or, perhaps more correctly, bro-mance, a sedentary and selective perspective on the vanished days of manly men doing manly things). In any case, even if the source is legit, numbers are invariably lacking.
The University of Maine study, first published in a 1904 USDA bulletin and entitled “Studies of the Food of Maine Lumbermen,” is the opposite of that. Despite the fact that the researchers were a couple decades too early to know what a vitamin was, their study was well-designed and the resulting data is an utter trove for the food historian. Granted, it shows that, yes, the loggers did eat a lot of beans, but it gets way more interesting once quantified.
Despite the ample and varied meat on the table, and pyramids of doughnuts and sugar cookies, beans were easily demonstrated to be the principle calorie-provider for every man in the study.
This was the case even though personal tastes clearly differed: Even if this lumberjack ate tons of protein and that one had a sweet tooth, they all ate strikingly similar weights of baked beans each day, from a pound to a pound and a half, furnishing from 10 to 16 percent of their 6,000 to 8,000 daily calories and one-fifth to one-third of their protein intake.
The river drive, when a crew was out working for 10 days or so guiding the logs down the river as the ice broke up, was the most mentally and physically demanding, and the most downright dangerous, part of the job.
Even the off-work hours were dreadful, as the men—often soaked to the skin—slept in tents in freezing temperatures. Working from before dawn until late into the night, the men would be brought food at several-hour intervals, eating wherever they happened to stand when the cookees found them.
It was during this most punishing phase of the operation that baked beans were crucial, as they comprised the main component of the diet, accompanied only by sourdough biscuits, cookies, tea, and molasses, up to five meals a day.
As the study’s authors observed, “These conditions might naturally tend to lessen the appetite.” Without a full menu of meat dishes and pastry, the men ate 25 percent less food overall, and generally lost a few pounds from their already lean frames. Baked beans supplied most of the calories and protein to keep them going.
As old-school logging camps and river drives became obsolete in Maine in the late 20th century, bean-hole beans gained a new generation of adherents among outdoorsmen and women, whose interests aligned more closely with Thoreau’s half a century earlier, than with the loggers of 1902. Authors of hunting and fishing manuals as well as scouting guides promulgated the bean-hole technique, but not without a note of caution to tenderfoots:
Baked beans are strong food, ideal for active men in cold weather. One can work harder and longer on pork and beans, without feeling hungry, than on any other food with which I am acquainted, save bear meat. The ingredients are compact and easy to transport; they keep indefinitely in any weather. But when one is only beginning camp life he should be careful not to overload his stomach with beans, for they are rather indigestible until you have toned up your stomach by hearty exercise in the open air.
The glory of cooking baked beans in a hole in the ground is a long-standing part of Maine history, and you can see it made to perfection in the video below!
My version of Maine Bean Hole Baked Beans is a signature blending of classic tradition and some new TFD prestidigitation to bring the flavor of the beans to their maximum potential! As such, I call the version shared today as “Maine-style” so as not to offend dyed-in-the-wool Mainers from storming My virtual castle in anger from the meddling of a non New Englander!
To start, there is only ONE style of bean you should ever use in Maine baked beans and that is the heirloom bean known as Marfax – NOTHING ELSE WILL SUFFICE! Thankfully, you can purchase them easily from this source. Salt pork is the other foundation upon which Maine baked beans are built – here is an excellent source to purchase the real deal from!
I have spiced my beans with a combination of common and outré spices, as is my wont – in a nod to the Native Americans, I’ve added a seasoning of dried wild ramps, the unqiue allium that is like a mixture of onion and garlic in its pungency – I adore it in this recipe and you can purchase it from here. I also like to use dried wild thyme flowers, which add an exceptional flavor – these are my go-to brand.
I like to add to the smoky goodness to My baked beans by using Birch-Smoked sea salt from Iceland in My version of the recipe – you can grab it from Amazon here. I also call for optional Maggi Würze seasoning from Germany – you can easily get it from here. Lastly, I also call for a combination of dark maple syrup and the classic unsulphured molasses to use as sweeteners. I also add a touch of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar to add a hint of tartness to My baked beans – buy it from here.
Citizens, making My version of Bean Hole Baked Beans is a labour of love, as it must be. I acknowledge this is a lot of work, but the payoff will assuredly be the finest and most authentic style of baked beans worthy to grace your NEXT Thanksgiving repast – or any time in the cooler months of the year, for that matter!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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