Boston Baked Beans: A Case Study in Culinary Tradition
By Alexandra Powell
During one of the educational programs we offer here at the Revere House, “The Revere Children and the Siege of Boston,” we task students with preparing Paul Revere Jr. for an extended stay home alone. It is the spring of 1775 and Paul Revere has just completed his now famous ride. He has written home to his wife, Rachel, asking her to pack the children and their most valuable possessions and to meet him in a safe house outside of the Boston. A postscript (seen in Friday’s Express post by Emily Holmes) to Paul Jr., aged fifteen, asks him to stay behind and guard the house and silversmith shop. Preparing a fifteen-year old boy for an indefinite period of living alone is trickier than one might think. Will he be safe, as the city is inundated with British soldiers who quickly set about looting vulnerable buildings? Will he be lonely? Will he even know how to feed himself? The last question opens up a rich avenue of discussion with students. What do you know how to cook? What would you have on hand to eat during a siege? Historical accounts tell us that food provisions ran so low in the city during the siege that people were forced to eat rats!
While our current quarantine situation little resembles the Siege of Boston, it does share certain characteristics with crises across generations. While I (thankfully) have not had to consider how to cook a rat, I have had trouble finding certain staples in my local grocery store. So while we may still be rooting around in the back of our pantries for ingredients, I thought we could take this moment to consider the cultural origins of one of our favorite local delicacies: Boston Baked Beans. Dried beans and salt pork last for ages in the pantry, and almost certainly would have been part of young Paul’s diet. But where did this recipe come from? And what makes the Boston version of baked beans so special?
The baked beans we enjoy today are a direct descendent from an English bean-and-bacon pottage dish originally from the middle ages. 17th century Puritans favored a dish that they could set to cook on Saturday and consume on Sunday, saving them from labor on the Sabbath. The ingredient that separates Boston Baked Beans from all others – molasses – probably entered the mix in the mid-18th century, as Boston’s centrality to the triangular trade grew. Molasses, produced by the exploitation of enslaved persons on plantations in the Caribbean, was shipped to Boston to make rum. By the late 19th century, when Fannie Farmer included Boston Baked Beans in her watershed cookbook, molasses was considered a canonical ingredient, along with ground mustard and salt pork (another very shelf-stable item).
As it turned out, the seeds of a culinary tradition that favored dishes like baked beans might actually have pre-dated the 17th century arrival of Europeans in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Archaeologist Charles Cheek posits that the individual culinary profiles of each of the original charter colonies derived directly from regional differences in the English origins of the initial settlers. The variety of unique foodways existing in the original colonies became a part of these individual “charter cultures,” forged by inherited English regional food traditions and also varying New World environmental factors. An illustrative example of these differences is each colony’s preferred method of cooking. Chesapeake colonists inherited their preference for frying and fricasseeing from culinary traditions in Southern England. The same is true of Quaker settlers in the Mid-Atlantic, who show a preference for boiling, like their ancestors in Northern England. Finally, baking is the norm in Eastern England, the origin point of the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
This hypothesis is another great example of archaeology coming to the rescue of documentary history (see my post “One Person’s Trash is Another’s Treasure”). It would be difficult to prove such a direct link between regional English food traditions and their corresponding New World colonies based solely on the historical record, as most references are anecdotal, vague and scattered across few 18th century primary sources like cookery books. Archaeologists, however, were able to find a larger number of a specific ceramic baking dish in Massachusetts Bay Colony excavations than in other colonies, such as the Chesapeake. The same is true of archaeological excavations in England, which show a preferred method of baking in deposits from eastern England, from which the first settlers to Massachusetts Bay Colony originated.
In these trying times I urge you to turn to the 18th century for inspiration. Celebrate a culinary tradition that stretches back to the Old World, and fix up some Boston Baked Beans for dinner tonight. They are a comfort food that has truly stood the test of time.
Recipe courtesy of Sam Sifton and NYT Cooking
2 cups navy beans
½ pound slab bacon, cut into cubes
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
⅓ cup molasses
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Soak beans in a large bowl of water for 6 hours or overnight. Drain beans and put them in a large oven-safe pot with a heavy bottom and a tightfitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and enough cool water to cover 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just tender, approximately 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and remove beans.
Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Bring a kettle full of water to a boil on the stove. Return the heavy-bottomed pot to the stove and turn the heat to medium high. Cook the bacon in the bottom of the pot until it begins to brown, then turn off the heat and add the chopped onion and, on top of it, the beans. Mix together molasses, mustard and black pepper, and add the mixture to the pot. Pour in enough boiling water to cover beans, put the lid on and bake, occasionally adding more water to keep beans covered, until they are tender but not falling apart, 4 to 5 hours.
Remove beans from oven, uncover, stir and season with salt. With the lid off, return pot to oven and let beans finish cooking, uncovered and without additional water, until the sauce has thickened and the top is deeply crusty, about 45 minutes more.
For more historic recipes, check out a few of our favorite cookbooks, all of which we sell in our gift shop. The Pleasure of the Taste, published by The Partnership of the Historic Bostons, is full of 17th century recipes that will make you rethink how Puritans felt about delicious food! Mitchells Publications puts out a bevy of historically inspired cookbooks. The two 18th century ones we love are Revolutionary Recipes and Colonial Christmas Cooking. All three will be in our online shop in the near future; in the meantime, you can buy them straight from the source here, here, and here.
Hammel, Lisa. “Fare of the Country; In Search of Real Boston Baked Beans.” New York Times [New York], 5 Feb 1984, p. 12.
Cheek, Charles D. “Massachusetts Bay Foodways: Regional and Class Influences.” Historical Archaeology, vol. 32, no. 3, 1998, pp. 153–172. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25616637. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.
Stavely, Keith and Kathleen Fitzgerald. America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking. The University of North Carolina press, 2004.
Alexandra Powell is a Program Assistant at the Paul Revere House