A couple of times a year, I take my bean pot from the top of the cabinet, give it a good scrub and make baked beans. The recipe I use is similar to the one in Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) and every other classic New England cookbook. It’s ridiculously simple—only six ingredients including the beans, and I wouldn’t think of tampering with it.
I’d always assumed the recipe was similar to the one supposedly baked by the Penobscot and Iroquois Indians and shared with the Pilgrims, so you can imagine how surprised I was when I read that Native Americans baked beans with maple syrup and bear fat. In what might have been the country’s first bit of culinary tinkering, the Massachusetts Colonists made a few changes to the recipe, using molasses instead of maple syrup and salt pork instead of bear. Masters in the art of leftovers, they baked beans on Saturday, often in the oven at a local tavern where everyone else baked their beans, and ate them for supper. On Sunday, when cooking was not permitted for religious reasons, they ate beans with brown bread and crab cakes. And my guess is that if there were any left at the end of the day, they polished them off before they went to bed.
By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.