A heritage built on baked beans

Paul Sparkes
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The lowly bean delivers protein and fibre with minimal cost and maximum taste

There was a time when no self-respecting Newfoundland home would go a week without baked beans.

Home-baked beans (with onion, molasses, mustard and ketchup) and home-baked bread, both whole wheat and white. — Photo by Paul Sparkes

Baked beans with molasses, pork fat and homemade brown bread together are due some of the credit for building this healthy race — if you can call us a race. I’m referring to those who have accumulated a certain number of years, having come through a traditional Newfoundland home.

The Ontario company, W.G. Thompson &  Sons has been packaging white, dried beans for 90 years. The company does a lot more than this, but their pea beans would be quite enough to earn them a high place in our estimation. The see-through plastic bag of beans is as familiar to us as Purity packages or Fray Bentos labels.

In our seafaring days, ships’ larders were usually stocked with sacks of beans. For good reason, too. Beans could put a fellow back up on deck determined to contend with all ill winds. Today, if you could find a sack of beans at all it would likely be in the rec room for lounging upon.

Not only are beans inexpensive and delicious (it’s almost impossible to create an unappealing meal of beans), but they are remarkably good for you.

The American doctor Steven Pratt is an authority on the role of nutrition and lifestyle in preventing disease. Dr. Pratt lists beans in the Winter Section of his 2006 book “SuperFoods HealthStyle — Proven Strategies for Lifelong Health”.

Beans, he says, “provide a low-fat protein, fibre, B vitamins, iron, potassium” and a few unpronounceable things that sound important. He thinks highly enough of beans to honour them with his “SuperFood” designation. He recommends at least four half-cup servings per week. Among the benefits of regular consumption of beans: they reduce obesity, stabilize blood sugar, combat heart disease and reduce cancer risk.

 “The Visual Food Encyclopedia” (1996) says there are more than 100 varieties of beans, varying in shape, colour, flavour and nutritional value.  

The “Little Mountain Bean Bible Cookbook” was published in the U.S. 23 years ago by Wiley J. Smith. It has more than 1,000 recipes and while I say it’s almost impossible to create an unappealing meal of beans there must at least be one “dog” among all those. Perhaps Wiley’s recipe for Kahlua Baked Beans is just such a recipe. At the very least it probably wouldn’t be right to serve it to the kids.

Here are the ingredients: four 16-oz. cans beans, one cup of Kahlua, one-quarter cup chili sauce, tablespoon of mustard and a tablespoon of molasses. You mix it altogether, allow it to stand for four hours and then bake it at 375 for only one  hour.

Wiley says it serves eight to 10. That I cannot believe — 64 ounces of beans among 10 people — 6.4 ounces each?

One of the province’s old standby recipe books, “The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes,”  was first issued in 1958 by The Maple Leaf Milling Company with submissions from hundreds of Newfoundland cooks. Its quintessential recipe for Newfoundland Baked Beans calls for  four cups of beans and a half pound of salt pork.

Twenty-six years ago Target Marketing, St. John’s, issued a series of recipe books to celebrate the traditional foods of Atlantic Canada. The purpose was also to celebrate Ultramar. You can still acquire a used  set  of the 12 booklets all in a ring binder, online. I recently saw one on Amazon for $30. In booklet No. 12  there’s a recipe for baked beans. The required white pea beans are soaked overnight, after which they spend six-eight hours in the oven. It’s pretty much formulaic.

However, scanning different recipes, you will find small variations. The Ultramar booklet calls for onion, dry mustard, ketchup, molasses, brown sugar and pepper; Thompsons call for all that, but prepared mustard instead of dry, and a little cider vinegar.

Introducing its baked beans, the Ultramar booklet says this:

“The rich aroma of baked beans will flood the mind with memories of a cold winter’s day … and the cozy comfort of a warm kitchen with a crackling woodstove stocked with firewood. And a crock of hearty baked beans has always been a welcomed meal, especially when served with fresh homemade bread.”

The Balthazar Cookbook (recipes from the famed Manhattan restaurant of the same name) includes a French recipe for white beans. The book says, “the only way to cook beans to perfection is to taste them frequently.” Of course, as this is a French recipe based on traditions, you can imagine it’s not our simple soak, add mustard, molasses and brown sugar and bake until the cows come home. Not likely.

Balthazar says to soak navy or Great Northern beans overnight and next day bring them to a boil with a variety of surprise entries — leeks, green beans, celery, carrot, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf, a “slab” of bacon). You simmer the beans for only 45 minutes. Then, before serving, it seems you throw away everything but the beans. I do realize, however, mine is a decidedly English view of the recipe. For sure, no Gallic pique is involved in the discarding of ingredients that have served their country well.

So as not to slander the French and leave it at that, I turned to “Traditional British Cooking” (1979). Dear Reader, I hate to tell you this, but one of our founding countries knows nothing about Baked Beans. The only thing this book offers is “Windsor Bean Pudding”. The Windsor Bean is the broad bean so it’s not a bean-bean; this “pudding” is not a dessert pudding, embracing only pepper, eggs, butter, bread crumbs and cream. Likely it is  an accompaniment to a main course with the intent of taking the diner’s mind off the focal point of the meal which, in England might well be tripe.

If Windsor Bean Pudding is what the book’s authors chose to represent the noble bean then it is small wonder the Empire has been lost.

The Mexicans know how to handle beans. They cook them, and just to be sure, they then cook them again. We often had this sort of thing as children — didn’t finish all the baked beans Saturday night? Well then, you would have them reheated Monday. Only we didn’t call them “refritos”.

I also have an American book, “Thoughts for Festive Foods” (1964) which provides recipes for large events. There is, for example, a menu for a Campaign Rally Dinner, based on a brisket of beef cooked with lima beans. The meal ends with lemon angel torte, beer and coffee. The main dish serves eight and starts with eight pounds of beef. Now that’s more like it!

The book also has a recipe for “Party Baked Beans” which, in the good old American way, are made with canned beans — three jumbo (one-pound, 10 ounce) cans. You sauté bacon (sort of like frying, but grander) with onion, throw in a cup of ketchup, salute the flag, add brown sugar and refrigerate the lot — don’t cook it. Next day you heat it and stuff it into an insulated food container and accompany it to a picnic.

I can’t criticize this recipe too much. My mother-in-law, a wonderful cook, often made a supper dish of three cans of baked beans mixed with some crumbled bacon which had been cooked with chopped onion. She added a dollop of prepared mustard and a little molasses. All of this was baked in a clear glass covered casserole which imposed a bit of class upon the simple dish. The beans were very “more-ish”.

“A Treasury of Nova Scotia Heirloom Dishes,”,published by Boulder Publications in 2011 includes “Saturday Night Baked Beans” which may have been copied off us here in Newfoundland. (We like to think like this). The amazing thing is, the Nova Scotians put a half-pound of fresh pork in with the beans! So this is as much pork as it is beans, right?

And finally, a column like this would be incomplete without a mention of Boston Baked Beans.

 

 

Organizations: W.G. Thompson Sons, Ultramar, Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes The Maple Leaf Milling Company Amazon Treasury of Nova Scotia Heirloom Dishes Boulder Publications

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Ontario, Fray Bentos Atlantic Canada Manhattan England

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