This dish, eventually to be esteemed a New England classic, got its start in the pottage kettle or stewpot, as peas or beans and bacon, which one historian says was among the oldest of English dishes. In medieval times, the legumes were softened in water, drained, and stewed gently in bacon broth. A piece of bacon would be put in the pot when the peas were almost done.
By the time of the settlement of New England, there had developed in the Midlands county of Staffordshire a baked version of beans and bacon, called “blanks & prises.” The beans were soaked overnight, then baked, along with onions, leeks, and honey-and-mustard-cured ham. “Staffordshire was also famous for its brown earthenware pottery, and in all probability its recipe for baked beans diffused with the special narrow necked pot employed in their preparation,” writes Jay Allan Anderson. Sound familiar? The Staffordshire pot certainly sounds like the famous Boston Bean Pot.
13. TO DRESS BEANS AND BACON
When you dress Beans and Bacon, boil the Bacon by itself and the Beans by themselves, for the Bacon will spoil the Colour of the Beans. Always throw some Salt into the Water, and some Parsley nicely pick’d. When the Beans are enough (which you will know by their being tender) throw them into a Cullender to drain: Take up the Bacon and skin it; throw some Raspings of Bread over the Top, and if you have an Iron make it red-hot and hold over it, to brown the Top of the Bacon: If you have not one, set it before the Fire to brown. Lay the Beans in the Dish, and the Bacon in the Middle on the Top, and send them to Table, with Butter in a Bason.
—Glasse, Art of Cookery (1747), p. 12
The way this stewed dish was served up turned it into something not all that different from what we know as baked beans. Whereas one medieval recipe recommends taking steps to prevent the legumes spoiling the appearance of the bacon, Glasse’s beans-and-bacon aesthetics are reversed— the bacon must not be allowed to disfigure the beans.
14. BEANS AND PEAS
Baked beans are a very simple dish, yet few cook them well. They should be put in cold water, and hung over the fire, the night before they are baked. In the morning, they should be put in a colander, and rinsed two or three times; then again placed in a kettle, with the pork you intend to bake, covered with water, and kept scalding hot, an hour or more. A pound of pork is quite enough for a quart of beans, and that is a large dinner for a common family. The rind of the pork should be slashed. Pieces of pork alternately fat and lean, are the most suitable; the cheeks are the best. A little pepper sprinkled among the beans, when they are placed in the bean-pot, will render them less unhealthy. They should be just covered with water, when put into the oven; and the pork should be sunk a little below the surface of the beans. Bake three or four hours. Stewed beans are prepared the same way. The only difference is, they are not taken out of the scalding water, but are allowed to stew in more water, with a piece of pork and a little pepper, three hours or more.
—Child, American Frugal Housewife (1833), p. 51
For quite a long time, colonial New Englanders ate what one historian has called “daily pottage fare” as their basic diet, probably more often than not the sort of hybrid of succotash and beans and bacon that we described, under the name “bean porridge,” in the section on New England succotash earlier in the chapter. It was in the eighteenth century, as bake ovens came to be installed in many households (and taverns), that stewed beans and bacon evolved into baked beans. But as Child’s recipe indicates, stewed beans and bacon didn’t disappear altogether.
15. BAKED BEANS
The species of beans used for baking is called the white field bean. There are two varieties,—the large and the small, or pea-bean,—the last is considered the best.
Soak one quart in cold, soft water, over night; the next morning remove the water in which the beans have soaked, and wash the beans in fresh water; then put them into a pot with two quarts of cold water, set the pot over a slow fire, and let simmer two hours, then score one and a half pounds of fat salt pork, and put it into the pot, concealing it, except the rind, in the middle of the beans; pour in a tea-spoonful of salt, and water enough to cover the pork and beans, set the pot in a hot oven and bake six hours; if the water wastes so that the beans become too dry, add a little more.
Baked beans, after having stood a day or two, are very good warmed over. In some parts of New England they are considered indispensable at a Sunday breakfast.
Lima and kidney beans, and other varieties, are sometimes dried and baked as above; they cook in a shorter time than the white field bean.
—Bliss, Practical Cook Book (1850), p. 90
This recipe illustrates the standard mid-nineteenth-century practice— both in using the white field bean and in minimal seasoning, in this case with salt only. Beecher felt that “all the garden beans are better for baking” than “the common field bean.” Her opinion gained few adherents however. One writer recommended adding saleratus, an early form of baking soda, to the dish just before it was baked.
16. BAKED BEANS, (WITHOUT PORK.)
Take one quart of clean, plump white beans, put them in a pan with sufficient water to keep them covered while soaking over night, (10 or 12 hours); pour off the water and put them in an iron kettle, to boil a half an hour, or until they can be crushed by a squeeze of the thumb and finger, and they are then ready to be poured into the baking pan, when a little brown sugar and salt may be added; pour sufficient water in the pan to keep them from burning at the bottom, and if the pan is covered it will prevent the beans at the top from being scorched. Bake from 3 to 4 hours.
—Hunt, Good Bread (1858), p. 17
The most important development in the subsequent history of New England baked beans was the addition of a sweetener to the beans (in this instance baked in a pan rather than a pot). It is ironic that one of the earliest occurrences of this innovation appears in this cookbook, which is otherwise notable for its austerity and proclaimed adherence to tradition.
17. NEW ENGLAND BAKED BEANS
Pick over and wash one quart of white beans and soak them over night in cold water; turn off the water, renew it with fresh, and boil steadily, keeping them covered with water until they begin to crack; drain and put them in the baking pot with not over half a pound of salt pork; cut the pork rind through across several times and have it a little above the beans; add two teaspoons of salt and one tablespoon of molasses; cover with water and bake slowly, all night is better; if cooked in a quick oven the water will dry away faster; keep sufficient water on them until done.
—Aunt Mary’s New England Cook Book (1881), p. 20
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, molasses has been the sweetener of choice, as in this recipe.