Monday, September 25, 2006


Kenneth Roberts on Beans

Historical novelist and Maine native Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) was very fond of beans. In his essay "A Maine Kitchen," he sings a paean to his grandmother's baked beans:
Thursday nights were big nights for the young fry in Grandmother's house, because that was the night for boiled dinner; but the biggest night of all was Saturday night. The rich scent of cooking had percolated through the house all day, and above all the other scents had risen the meaty, fruity, steamy odor of baked beans.

Ah me! Those Saturday night dinners of baked beans, brown bread, cottage cheese, Grandma's ketchup; and for a grand finale, chocolate custards! I can hear myself, a child again, begging and begging for another plate of beans -- just one more plate of beans; hear the inexorable voice of authority say firmly, "You've had three plates already!" And in spite of that I can hear myself, pestlike, continuing to beg, "Just three beans! Just three more!" I usually got three additional beans, no more, no less; and always they were as delicious, as rich, as tantalizing in their toothsome mellowness as the first spoonful had been.

Other may insist on souffl├ęs, ragouts, entremets, vol-au-vents; but I prefer baked beans cooked the way my grandmother used to cook them.
He waxes no less eloquent in another essay entitled "An Inquiry into Diets:"
I have also viewed with favor a commodious platter of corned beef hash, or a savory mess of pea beans, impregnated with pork, molasses, mustard, and onion in the proper proportion; then baked about thirty-six hours in a well-ripened bean pot.

My baked-bean record, to the best of my knowledge and belief, compares favorably with that of any New Englander. From my earliest years I have had what might almost be called an affinity for baked beans, especially when lubricated with homemade tomato catsup from which all sweetening has been religiously excluded.

When confronted with a successful baking of beans, I have frequently attacked them enthusiastically on Saturday night, gladly repeated on Sunday morning, then toyed with two or three platefuls, cold, on Sunday evening, and made a final clean-up of the bean situation at my Monday morning breakfast.
Baked beans also play a role in Roberts' novels, for example in his Rabble in Arms (1929), about Benedict Arnold's expedition to Quebec during the American Revolutionary War. The protagonist, Steven Nason, describes an evening at the family home:
My oldest sister Hepsibah stood guard over the bean pots to make sure the pork was on top for its final browning, which is one reason for the toothsomeness of the bean as cooked in our family. Coarse fare though it may be, I would liefer have it as Malary cooked it, and as Cynthia still cooks it, than all the ragouts and French flummeries you can show me. (chapter II)
In an Abenaki Indian encampment, faced with a meal of venison dipped in sugared raccoon fat, Nason muses:
Seeing the pleasure my father took in this food, I tried it and found it had merit, though I shall never prefer it to three or four platters of my sister Cynthia's baked beans, laced with my mother's sauce made from cucumbers and onions. (chapter VI)
Aboard the sloop Eunice bound for Newburyport, he has beans for breakfast:
If there is a better or tastier breakfast than beans and mustard pickle and coffee and hot bread and an apple pie with cinnamon, I have never found it in many years of traveling. (chapter XIV)
In chapter XXVI, the soldiers on the expedition to Quebec, starving and reduced to eating boiled leather for sustenance, argue about the best way to soften beans in preparation for baking (parboiling or overnight soaking), about the best accompaniment to beans (hot bread or sour milk cheese), and about what makes beans less "windy" (mustard or parboiling). One thing they don't talk about is the proper sweetening (molasses, brown sugar, or maple syrup). In the Northeastern corner of the United States, some people debate these matters with the same fervor that you hear when you listen to Southerners discussing barbecue.

And finally, when Steven Nason returns home to Arundel, what's the first sight that greets him?
My sister Cynthia stood by the brick oven holding a bean pot cover in her hand and peering at the beans. (chapter XXXVI)

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