The Saga of the Exquisite Bostofornia Bean

Editor’s Note: With Labor Day fast approaching, many folks are casting about for “the best” baked bean recipe for family picnics. Give this one a try, and then drop us a line and let us know how it worked for you!

I like beans.  I say this with no pretense to humility nor assertion of especial manliness, simply that not only are they an under-appreciated food, they can taste very good indeed and provide us, for very little money, with substantial nutritional benefits.  Their famed side effect only adds to their charm, albeit in a somewhat collegial way, and can hardly be said to detract overall.

I have tried them prepared in many ways, and most bean cookery seems but one variation or another on your original Yankee Style bean preparation, your Boston Baked Bean, so this became a particular interest of mine for some years: whence the gold standard?  That is, what mode of preparation makes the perfect B.B.B.?

Perusing cookbooks in a second-hand stall, I came across a 1930 edition of the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer.  Why, whom else?, thought I, could possibly be a better reference for the One True Boston Baked Bean?  She who almost single-handedly revolutionized American cookery with Domestic Science?  And sure enough, the redoubtable Ms. Farmer devotes half an entire page to this one delicacy.

I followed her routine to the last detail, even to the 3/4 pound of fat salt pork which I had to order specially from my butcher, and the results were admirable though somewhat variable.  For instance, she allows (per 2 pounds of dried pea beans) for the addition of “1 tablespoon to 1 cup of molasses, according to taste.”  This is wide latitude indeed, even when one agrees on what kind of molasses to employ, namely blackstrap, the only kind worth cooking with.  Still, it encourages perhaps too much experimentation for general inclinations.

She recommended par-cooking the beans in a clever fashion, namely keeping things below boiling and cooking slowly, sampling a few beans every few minutes and blowing over them; when their skins burst, they’re sufficiently par-cooked.

After one try, the fat salt pork was rejected in favor of a smoked ham shank.  Have your butcher saw the central bone down in three or four places and it breaks up better during cooking.

But even with all my tinkering, I wasn’t satisfied.  In an old Sears/-Roebuck catalogue I had seen a listing for a genuine “Boston Bean Pot” available in three or four sizes; it was a uniquely glazed ceramic pot, with a tall vertical handle molded into one side so as to make it easy to lift into and from a bake-oven.  This was it!  This was what I’d been looking for, a real Boston Bean Pot!

Traditional Stoneware Bean Pots

Traditional Stoneware Bean Pots are available at Lehmans.com and Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio.

The problem: it was a 1902 Sears catalogue that I’d perused.  Still, at the time it was only 1992, there was still a Boston, there were still beans, so it made sense there’d still be Boston Bean Pots at Sears.  So I looked, and there weren’t.  But still I looked.  No Boston Bean Pot, at any store near me nor in any of the major catalogue-cookery companies (this was before the advent of the Internet, keep in mind).  I wrote to friends living in big cities to take a look around for me, and those who bothered reported the same results – nothing!  No bean pots of any kind.  Oh, pots, sure; crock pots, sauce pots, stock pots, fondue pots.  “Hey – it’s a pot, you put beans in it, it’s a bean pot, eh?!” one exasperated clerk said to me.  And yes, he’s right, but also – no, he’s not.

Then an inspired idea came to me: a friend’s daughter was attending Emerson College, deep in the heart of you-know-where!  She could help.  I explained to her my quest, and she flung her fullest energies into the task.  After six months a Pyrrhic victory was achieved: she found a genuine Boston Bean Pot…about four inches high, filled with souvenir “Boston Baked Bean” candies, available for a simply scandalous price at the airport.

And was I devastated?, you ask.  No, I was not.  I sat me down at my desk with a new smoldering resolution, and with a flinty gleam in mine eye I wrote a stirring epistle to none other than His Honor Thomas Menino, the apparently permanent Mayor of Boston, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  I felt inspired by Emerson himself, outlining the bitter disappointments of my long and futile quest for the ultimate Boston Baked Bean via a True Baked Bean Pot from Boston, wondering aloud if perhaps an essential component of the very soul of Beantown Itself had wandered into the sunset of senescence over the course of grueling time, and so forth, in this rich vein.  Now, I was not under any illusion that Big Tom himself would ever be flinching beneath the lash of my matchless prose, but I was fairly sure of having my letter shunted by minions to the appropriate Cranky Constituent Handler who would then, perchance, spend a few vital minutes thumbing through the Boston yellow pages on my behalf.

Imagine my surprise to receive but a week later a brief letter from Hizzoner Hisself, the Man, The Mayor, capital tee capital emm, Menino Thomas T., signed and everything!  Incredibly, the fellow seems to answer his own Nut Mail.  Worry not, my friend, he told me in what I could only take for soothing, dulcet tones, a Boston Bean Pot may yet be had in Boston.  Try my friends at ‘The Pot Shop.’  Thanks for askin’; Tom.

Wow.  You better believe I called these people up right quick and got me a catalogue, and eventually bought myself a lovely 1-gallon Boston Bean Pot made in Boston by, presumably, Bostonians.  It has two handles, not one like back in 1902, so it seems the passage of centuries can still improve things.

Their standard recipe is very similar to what Fannie Merritt Farmer recommended, and this, with excruciatingly careful testing, I have simultaneously expanded and refined into the following:

Exquisite Baked Beans – Bostofornia style
(With apologies to Hizzoner The Mayor)

1 qt (2 lb) dry pea beans or Navy beans
1 smoked ham shank
1 onion
3/4 tablespoon garlic salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 cup blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup strong coffee
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 tablespoon herbal vinegar
1 cup +/- boiling water or pot liquor (liquid left over after cooking beans)

Put the beans in a large bowl, cover 1” deep with cold water, and leave to soak overnight.  Some people add a teaspoon of baking soda to this water to reduce the beans’ potential gassiness, but I have never noticed any difference by doing this.  The next morning drain and discard the liquid, regardless.

In a large saucepan, cover the beans with fresh water and heat gently until they just begin to send up some foam.  Never boil them.  Skim off any foam and stir every now and then but do so very gently so as not to break up the beans.

As they par-cook, either grate or finely mince the onion into another pan, heat it up and add all the other ingredients.  If you have pot liquor from the simmering beans to spare, use it, but otherwise use boiling water.  After a few minutes catch a few beans in a slotted spoon, drain them and blow gently over them.  If they just lie there, continue to par-cook; but if just one of them bursts its skin, immediately shut off the heat, drain and transfer the beans to your Bean Pot along with the broken-up ham shank.  Drench them with the molasses sauce, stir gently to distribute it evenly, adding a little more pot liquor if needed so the beans are totally covered.

Put on the lid, set the pot into a nice slow oven (250° F.) and bake for about 5 or 6 hours.  At some point check for done-ness, adding a bit more boiling water if necessary.  These beans could slow-cook for another hour or two, but should remain firm when cooked and not be disintegrating.  Some recipes call for removing the lid for the last hour of cooking in order to crisp up the exposed fat pork rind, but substituting a smoked ham shank means you don’t have to bother with this.

Serves at least 12 as a substantial side-dish; do mind the ham bone bits.  For smaller parties, freeze the leftovers promptly in individual sized containers, as they re-heat well.

Editor’s Note: While Lehman’s traditional bean pots are not made by Bostonians (sorry, JB), they are made in the USA of durable stoneware, with two handles, a lid and lots of charm.

6 thoughts on “The Saga of the Exquisite Bostofornia Bean

  1. This is just so humorously written, it kept me captivated from beginning to end! I love it! I will be trying this man’s recipe, mind you, without the bean pot, lol! :)

  2. I will be trying with a bean pot :) I am fortunate enough to have purchased several at a local flea market through the years. The recipe sounds delicious. Now if it would cool off enough so that I want to use the oven ~

  3. What a great article! Makes me want to run out and get a bean pot…or not. But I still want to make beans.