Memorial Day. If I were back home there’d be a visit to the cemetery where both sides of the family’s departed lie in a hill that overlooks their hometown, my hometown. If I were back home I’d be at a family gathering, startled to find myself not among the young descendants patrolling and plundering the food table between play, but among the older generation whose stories the young might listen in on, whose recipes they might one day try to replicate. I wonder who made the beans for today’s gathering.
I made beans today. Where I find myself now I cannot find the beans my grandmother used, the navy beans, soldier beans, or Jacob’s Cattle beans. The shelves here mostly feature black beans and red beans, companions of tortillas and rice, and as I peruse my options I rub elbows with Jamaicans and Central Americans. Leaving with a bag of blandly named ‘white beans’ and a bag of black-eyed peas to mix things up, I nod and wish the other bean shoppers a good day. We will all memorialize some one and some place through our cooking of beans. I will remember history and family as I make baked beans, sometimes referred to as Boston baked beans, a New England staple since colonial times.
Baked beans take a bit of time, require being around the house, as they need to soak and simmer before the final cooking with the rest of the ingredients, which is the stage they are at now. Mine are in a crockpot, not the bean pots that my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother used. These three women and more are always in my thoughts when I make beans. I always stir in onions and also green pepper because even though my mother doesn’t include bell pepper in her beans, her aunt did. My sister-in-law’s mother does and her beans are darn good. She likely was implored to make her beans for the family gathering today. Into the crockpot goes the chopped pepper.
I recall that my great-grandmother’s beans always featured molasses heavily, whereas my mother’s don’t, hers relying instead on maple syrup for her sweetening. My great-grandmother’s baked beans, almost black in color, were more akin to the old time beans of Bean-town, bearing the tradition of molasses in New England. My mother, especially when I was growing up, tends to use what is cheapest, nearest to hand, which is home made maple syrup. My husband’s mother favored brown sugar. Me? I acknowledge these three women, two now passed, and use all three ingredients; more than a concession to my bean making kin, it is a good flavor and texture combination. I also add a bit of ketchup and sandwich mustard, but I can’t recall who gave me that hint. It’s just what I do.
Traditionally salt pork was added to beans. Salt pork used also to be cheap and near to hand, especially for those of us that raised a hog, but now can be less available in a grocery store. I use bacon regardless, a thick cut if available. It still binds the beans together like the salt pork but is a distinctive ingredient that holds its own in the mix. For today’s batch I found hickory smoked thick cut bacon, which is smelling pretty good with the syrup right now.
I’m going to get up and give my beans a stir, maybe have a taste. The taste will stir memories.
Conversation is the current topic of Irene Waters’ Times Past blog post. Recently she also had us remembering “cooking with mum”. Go there to join the conversation. I attended no gatherings today but recalled gatherings past as I undertook a traditional food preparation. Making my own version of baked beans ended up being a perfect Memorial Day celebration.