I’ve been cooking these since I was a little girl, and still remember my mom buying me my first real brown and tan bean pot. We got it at Marlowe’s department store, and paid $1.22. I know the price because it’s still scrawled in permanent marker on the bottom. Marlowe’s is no longer in business, but I still own and use that pot.
Baked beans have been eaten in North America since before the Pilgrims landed. It is believed that the Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroquois Indians created the first baked bean recipes using maple syrup, cooking them in earthenware pots that were placed in pits and covered with hot rocks. The Pilgrims evidently learned how to make baked beans from the Native Americans, although they began substituting molasses and pork fat for the maple syrup and bear fat. This dish was perfect for the Pilgrim household. Pilgrim women were not allowed to cook on Sunday, because of their religious beliefs, and the baked beans could be cooked over Saturday night, ready to be consumed after the endless Puritan services.
During colonial days, the city of Boston became famous for baked beans, received the nickname of “Beantown.” Molasses was in great supply due to the Triangular Trade, one of the bastions of American slavery: Caribbean slaves grew sugar cane, the sugar cane was sent to Boston and made into rum, the rum was sent to West Africa to buy more slaves to send to the Caribbean to work in the sugar cane fields. Molasses not used for rum was used in cooking, and the molasses-based Boston Baked Beans tradition was on its way.
There are many different recipes for baked beans, but genuine Boston Baked Beans contain 6 ingredients, and tomato in any form whatsoever is never, ever one of them. Here’s my own favorite recipe (or, to be historically correct, receipt), an often requested classic in my family:
1 lb dry navy beans
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 tsp dry mustard
1 medium onion, cut in thin rings or slices
optional: salt pork cubes or slices
Soak beans overnight in a medium sized kettle, using about 2 quarts of water.
Simmer for 1 hour. Drain, reserving liquid.
Pour beans into bean pot or another casserole dish with a cover. Add onion slices.
Measure 2 cups of the reserved liquid, adding water if needed. Mix with brown sugar, molasses, and mustard. Add to bean pot, combine with beans and onion. Salt pork can be added, if desired.
Cover and bake in oven at 300 degrees, 5 to 7 hours. Stir frequently, adding water or reserved liquid as needed. Do not allow the beans to become dry.
Enjoy the wonderful aroma filling your house, and for a warming traditional supper, serve with ham or hot dogs and brown bread.