It is a long standing tradition in Maine to have home-baked beans for supper on Saturday nights. This was certainly true in our family. In fact there was somewhat of a silent, but constant, competition between my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and the wives of my uncles as to who baked the best pot of beans. Each of these ladies had something unique about their beans — something that set theirs apart from the others.
My Uncle Gene’s wife, Wilda, once whispered to me that her secret was the amount of dry mustard she put in the beans. Although it was never spoken, it was certainly implied that I was never, ever, to breach Aunt Wilda’s confidence and tell a living soul of this baked bean secret. I was no dummy … I loved her beans, and knew when to keep my mouth happily filled with her beans, and her secret locked away from “the enemy.”
My Dad was so impressed with my Mom’s baked beans, that he considered turning our garage into a small “baked bean factory.” He thought, with baked beans that good, he stood a chance of becoming the Andrew Carnegie of the baked bean world. I was all for it … I mean being the son of the wealthiest baked bean baron in the world, plus the endless supply of baked beans seemed like a win-win situation to me.
The problem was Dad never took into account that he and Mom were on the edge of divorce and hardly ever spoke to each other.
Aunt Bev, my grandparent’s only daughter, made, in Pup’s words, “A darn fine bean.” Aunt Brenda, Unc Stub’s wife, was no slouch either … her beans always got “good reports,” as Unc Stub was fond of saying. The queen bean baker though, was my grandmother. Mamie’s beans were always perfect … not too hard, not mushy, not too sweet, but not dry either. In fact, it was Mamie who gave me her own little trade secret in the art of bean baking: add a chunked up smoked sausage to the pot about two hours before the beans are done baking for that slightly smoky flavor that really makes the beans something akin to baked bean nirvana.
Another thing that set my grandmothers beans apart from the others was her homemade biscuits.
You can’t have baked beans without homemade biscuits … if it isn’t illegal, it darn sure ought to be. Now, I am not saying that the other ladies didn’t make a “darn fine biscuit” because they most assuredly did. Biscuits to die for ... but, consider this little fact: my grandmother, by my calculations, made well over 750,000 biscuits in her life.
That’s a lot of biscuits.
No one could make biscuits like Mamie, they would almost float in mid-air they were so light and flaky … smeared with homemade butter from Pup’s butter-churn, and dipped in the bean juice is pretty close to baked bean heaven.
Accompanying the baked beans and biscuits was my grandfather’s home-made sauerkraut. Pup made two 30 gallon crocks of ‘kraut every fall when we would harvest countless heads of cabbage from his garden. The “Making of the ‘Kraut” each fall was a spectacular event in my childhood and I will devote another entire story chronicling this most reverent of traditions.
So, sitting around my grandparent’s table, in their kitchen, in the farmhouse I grew up in, on a typical Saturday night, were my grandparents, my parents, my uncles and their wives, my aunt and her husband, and all my cousins — between 12 to 18 people, depending. To this day, I don’t how that was managed, but it was, and on a regular basis. Besides all those people, practically drooling over the smell of baked beans and hot biscuits wafting through the kitchen, was the food. Huge mounds of sauerkraut in bowls, platters piled high with biscuits, other bowls filled with steaming hot-dogs, small crocks of home-made butter, and others filled with home-made jam, and of course large two gallon crocks of baked beans fresh from the oven. It was an orgy of unbelievable proportions … a flurry of ladles of beans being doled out into plates, biscuits being smeared with the butter and/or jam, ‘kraut being piled on the plate beside the beans, and hotdogs being dumped on top, all to the sound of 18 people talking, laughing, and groaning in anticipation.
It was beautiful.
After everyone was gorged, the “men” would retire to the living room for a smoke and for storytelling, while the “women-folk” would clean up the remains, and do the dishes while having their own version of story-telling. We kids would flitter back and forth trying to decipher who had the juiciest story to listen to.
One particular Saturday, after we all had waddled from the table, completely sated and holding our bellies, the men settled into the living room. Pup sat in his overstuffed rocker beside the window, Unc Gene was in the recliner across from him, Dad and Unc Stub were holding down the sofa, while Uncle Roy was in the over-stuffed wingback chair by the TV. Us kids squeezed in where we could, cousin Genie-bub was in between Unc Stub and Dad on the sofa, I was sitting on the floor with my back against the wall beside the sofa, while cousins Randy and Robbie were fighting over who was gonna sit on the padded chest that held my grandmothers Electrolux. My Sis, and cousin Linda were out in the kitchen helping with the clean-up chores and adding to the buzz of conversation out there. Both Pup, and Unc Gene pulled out their rolling papers and a foil pack of Prince Edward tobacco and rolled themselves a smoke, Dad filled his pipe while Unc Stub tickled cousin Genie-bub. Just as we were settling in, and a hush came over the living room in anticipation of a story … Pup cocked his leg and let a very loud and very long fart reverberate through the living room. The cousins and I started to laugh … the Uncs and Dad looked a bit envious and the kitchen became deathly silent. My grandmother appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. She was glaring at Pup and spoke in that voice that typically meant someone was in trouble, “Henry Littlefield! ... you STOP that!”
“Well Mother,” says Pup with a little self satisfied smirk on his face, “perhaps you better stop it….it’s heading your way.”
The cousins and I were doubled over holding our bellies laughing … the Uncs and Dad were laughing but trying to keep Mamie from seeing them do so … even the rest of the ladies in the kitchen were snickering and covering their grins with their hands. Mamie started making that little “tch tch tch” noise that indicated her disapproval, but I think I saw the smallest hint of a smile on her face too. After a few minutes we got our selves under control and Pup began to tell us all a story.
It was a story of how he ran away from home when he was all of 14 years old, along with his older brother … how they had slept in the hay mow of a farmer’s barn where they could look out through the holes in the roof and count the stars … where the temperature was often below freezing. He told us how he and his brother had to work for the farmer to earn the right to sleep in his barn and to get three meals a day. He went on to explain that work included cutting timber and firewood and hauling it out of the woods by horse-drawn skidder, of mucking out the barn and tending to the farmers animals, and on occasion, when the work was caught up, how they would take the farmers hounds and go rabbit hunting. It was a heck of an adventure and none of us ever tired of these stories from my grandfather’s life.
After the story … after the kitchen was cleaned, and all the dishes were washed and put away in the cupboards … everyone prepared to go home. There were the hugs and kisses from the women, the pats on the shoulder from the men, and of course, the pinches on the butt between the cousins and I, and within 15 minutes the house was empty except for Mamie and Pup.
The rest of this story was told to me by my grandmother. She always claimed that this was one of her favorite recollections.
After the family had left to go to their own homes and beds, Pup, as he usually did, went to bed early. He would be up at 4 am the next morning to prepare for his day. Mamie stayed up for awhile and watched TV ... probably Lawrence Welk … that was one of her favorites. Mamie and Pup’s bedroom was right off the living room and Mamie could hear Pup snoring away. After she had watched TV for a while she decided to go to bed too … she shook Pup as she crawled into to bed with him, “Henry … roll over and stop snoring.”
Pup just grunted in his sleep and went back to a lusty snore, punctuated, by one resounding fart after another. Mamie starting putting the elbows to Pup … trying to get him to wake up.
She said, just as she was yelling at him,
“Henry! ... you have GOT to stop snoring … I can't sleep … and YOU HAVE GOT TO STOP passing gas … it stinks something awful!!” that she took a cramp herself … and let one slide out.
Yes, the ole SBD … (silent but deadly).
About that time Pup is half awake … clearing his throat, he sits up in bed takes a couple of big whiffs, and remarks, “By God Mother … them do stink, don’t they?”
Pup immediately rolled over and went back to sleep, Mamie said she laid awake most of the night laughing.
Nothing like them “Saturday Night Baked Beans”.
The Baked Bean Recipe:
Soak 2 lbs of Yellow-eye beans over night, draining in the morning until just an inch of water covers the beans. Add the dry spices:
1/4-1/2 cup dry mustard
1/3 cup salt
2-4 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper
2-4 tablespoons garlic powder
stir, then add:
1/2-3/4 cup molasses
1/2-3/4 cup dark brown sugar
Stir, then add:
A good sized smoked ham hock (or salt pork)
A large onion, quartered
I like to start the beans at a high temp ... say, 400 F, until they are bubbling. Then I turn the heat back to 325 F, or low (if using a crock pot). The idea is to get the beans bubbling and then slow baked them to ensure the texture of the beans is perfect and the spices and smoked meat flavors are incorporated well. This process takes about 6 hours. When the beans are about 2 hours from being done, I add a chunked up smoked sausage. If you add the sausage too soon, you'll get the smoky flavor, but the sausage with be soft and mushy ... about two hours is perfect. Also, baking beans is a matter of taste ... you can adjust the amounts of the molasses/garlic/brown sugar/salt, etc., based on your desires to have beans that are richer and sweeter, or drier and more mellow flavored. Start out with reduced amounts and add to taste through the baking process until you have a pot of beans that you like.
Now, another tradition here in good ol' Maine, is to make cold bean sandwiches out of the left over beans ... this is an amazing treat. Thick slices of home made bread, thinly sliced onion, the beans, and mayo on both sides of the bread...my belly is growling just thinking about it!
Bon ... ahem ... I mean, Bean Appétit!