Jimmy’s Boston baked beans
Christopher Columbus is often hailed as the discoverer of the New World, but not only is this incorrect, but it does him a great injustice. The discoverer of the Americas was undoubtedly some nomadic tribe of hunter/gatherers who crossed the Bering land bridge during an ice-age when the sea level had been drawn down by all the water held in the glaciers. Further, Columbus wasn’t even the first European to come to the Americas. He was undoubtedly preceded by the Vikings and may have been preceded by the Irish, Romans, Phoenicians, or even the Egyptians.
So what did Columbus do before anyone else that made him so famous? A clue to the answer to this question can be found in a scientific expedition a few years ago which, for me anyway, conclusively settled the question of which island in the Caribbean Sea was the location of Columbus’ first landfall. The reason that these latter day explorers were able to pin point the location of the first landfall was that Columbus was such a good navigator and keep such meticulous records that modern historians were able to track his route exactly. Columbus’ fame, as suggested by his nickname “The Great Navigator” is that he was the first person to travel westward from Europe to America and to write down how to do it so that others coming behind him could follow his written directions and be assured of arriving at the intended destination. The key feature of Columbus’ directions lay in finding the clockwise circle of trade winds that could push a ship to America and then return it back to Europe.
So I believe that special praise should be given to those bold explorers who not only venture forth into the unknown, but also write down how to repeat their adventure for those of us timid souls who would otherwise fear to follow. One such intrepid character is my brother, Jim, and his El Dorado is a pot of Boston baked beans.
All my brothers and sisters (and for that matter every kid in our neighborhood in Mt. Olive, NC) has vivid and wonderful memories of coming home from school and smelling, before even entering the house, the marvelous aroma of baked beans. Invariable, such a treat was reserved for Friday afternoons and it seems as though Mother always made enough to last the entire weekend. But Mother never made the beans the same way twice. She learned the recipe from her mother-in-law, Winnie McWhorter Cox, who in-turn learned it from the Lillian Maxwell, the wife of Joe Maxwell, a pair of displaced Bostonians.
The family story was that these were original and genuine Boston baked beans.
But just as the Viking and Phoenician sailors had navigated by subjective signs such as clouds, the color of the water, and the presence and type of seaweed, so my mother and grandmother made baked beans with a pinch of this and a dash of that. When my brother finally bearded the lion in her den, my mother confessed that she really didn’t have a recipe for the baked beans, she just kind of made it up as she went along. With this admission in hand, my brother resolved to watch my mother make bake beans and to document her actions. With the basic recipe in hand, my brother then realized that there was way too much leeway in the ingredients to ever hope for consistent results, unless you were an experienced cook and understood exactly the subtle interplay of flavors created by the differing amounts of the several ingredients.
My brother then decided to embark on an experimental course of his own to standardize the method of preparation and the quantities of the ingredients. While the basic list of ingredients remained the same, my brother added a critical new step in the method of preparation that provided a margin of safety to ensure that a quality product could be produced everytime. My brother’s key innovation was to pre-cook the beans in a slow cooker (a/k/a crock pot) at low heat overnight to ensure that all the various flavors and ingredients had time to mingle.
So similar to Columbus before him, while my brother Jim was not the first person in our family to make baked beans, he was the first person to set down a procedure and list of ingredients in writing with sufficient specificity to allow untrained and unschooled cooks to replicate his results. And replicate them well enough so that the uninitiated would declare the results to be the best baked beans they had even tasted.
Or at least this has been my experience. In partial proof of the previous statement, on several occasions I have prepared Jimmy’s Boston baked beans for covered dish suppers and unassumingly placed them on the table in front of an unsuspecting public. At the end of the dinner when surveying the leftovers, every other dish on the serving table contained some portion of its original contents. But invariably when coming to the bowl of Jimmy’s Boston baked beans, the dish would be so empty that it seemed as though someone had picked it up and licked it clean.
The recipe for Jimmy’s baked beans, as told to my wife Clare follows.
1. Two (2) lbs of dry white peas. (I use Navy beans.)
2. ½ to ¾ cup of salt.
3. 1½ teaspoons of ground black pepper. (More if you like pepper.)
4. 1½ cups of white sugar. (First addition.)
5. ¼ cup of white sugar. (Second addition.)
6. Side meat or bacon. (Amount varies depending on taste, but it is a necessary ingredient, not an optional one. Side meat is the preferred ingredient. I use at least ¾ lb. of side meat.)
1. Add the ½ to ¾ cup of salt and two (2) lbs. of beans to a large pot. Add sufficient water to cover the beans.
2. Boil salted water and beans for two (2) hours.
☞The following step is critical. If you lose patience and don’t do it correctly, the beans won’t taste good!☜
3. Drain salted water from beans and rinse repeatedly with fresh water. First Rule of thumb: Rinse beans until you are sure you are through and then do it once more. Second rule of thumb: rinse beans until the salty taste in the beans is no longer unpleasant. Third rule of thumb: Let the beans sit in fresh water for a while to leach some of the salt out.
4. Place rinsed beans in a slow-cooker (a/k/a crock pot.) Mix-in the black pepper, 1½ cups of sugar, and one-half the amount of side meat or bacon you intend to use. If using side meat, cut it into small cubes. Add sufficient water to cover beans.
5. Cook overnight in the slow-cooker (a/k/a crock pot.)
6. Transfer beans from slow-cooker (a/k/a crock pot) to a large casserole. Add ¼ cup of sugar and remaining side meat or bacon. If using side meat, cut it into thin slices and drape the slices on top of the beans. Add sufficient water to cover beans.
7. Cook in oven at 350°F for six (6) to eight (8) hours, until brown.
8. While cooking in the oven, periodically check the beans to make sure they are covered with water. If the beans dry out too soon, they will be tough. Add water as necessary until about about 1 to ¾ hours before done and then let water boil down a little, but don’t let the beans completely dry out.
Even if you have never cooked anything in your life, if you follow the above directions, you will make a wonderful tasting and smelling dish that will truly amaze you and anyone else who has the good fortune to partake of your culinary expertise.
So each October 14th, when you raise a toast to Columbus, The Great Navigator, for charting a course to the New World, lift another glass to James Oliver Cox, The Great Chef, for charting a course to the best Boston baked beans in the world.