If you’re seeking a fun one-pot dish that can be made indoors or outdoors, feed a large number of people, and is something of a New England tradition, consider making bean-hole beans. All you’ll need is a sturdy kettle (or dutch oven), a few simple ingredients, and a group of hungry people.
Looking to trade tales at the table about where this dish comes from? Here’s the backstory.
The Romanticized Origin of Bean-Hole Beans
You’re probably already familiar with “the three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—as the three main crops that formed the basis of the diet of the indigenous people of North America. However, while corn may have been new to the European settlers who arrived here, beans certainly were not.
In fact, legumes (including peas and lentils) have been a major part of the diet of people around the globe for centuries, if not millennia. There’s evidence of beans being cultivated in Latin America as far back as 8,000 years ago, and by the 1600s, European farmers were planting them as often as they did cereal grains, like wheat. That being said, meat was still a sign of wealth, so even though many people ate them on a daily basis, subsisting on beans was looked down upon and associated with being poor.
In terms of culinary methods, the concept of cooking beans in a pit was relatively new to European settlers. It’s also unclear whether native tribes typically cooked them that way. As food historians Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald explain in their book, “America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking,” archaeologists have found evidence that some tribes in Maine and New York buried earthenware pots of food covered in hot ash, but it wasn’t necessarily a widespread cooking technique.
Regardless, by the late 19th century, the romanticized notion that North American Indians had taught early European settlers underground cooking methods popularized events like clambakes and bean-hole bean gatherings. It was only in lumbering camps in Maine that bean-hole beans were considered a regular—and very important—part of people’s diet.
Related Video: How to Make Maple Bacon Baked Beans
Bringing Back the Beans
According to native New Englander Tom Curren, who has become an expert on bean-hole beans, there are several reasons why this dish became so popular with loggers up in Maine. The main ingredients needed—dry beans, salt pork, onions, molasses, herbs, and spices—don’t require refrigeration and can easily be packed up for long expeditions in the wilderness. In fact, during the Civil War, he says, Union soldiers from Maine brought the practice with them to the South. “Cooks would go ahead a day’s march, dig a hole, create a fire, put rocks in the hole, heat them up, put a kettle in with the ingredients, bury it, and when the regiment marches down after a long day, they don’t have to wait for the cooks, they just dig it up and can eat it instantly,” Curren explains.
Eventually, bean-hole beans became somewhat of a tradition at town gatherings across New England. It all started with Old Home Day, invented in 1899 by Governor Frank Rollins of New Hampshire, to attract people from the city back to their hometowns for a yearly reunion. It was the Industrial Revolution, explains Curren, so everyone was moving into the cities for work, but they enjoyed having a reason to go back to the country and see their friends and family. “Food is a great social stimulation and act of faith at the same time,” Curren says.
This tradition remained popular well into the 1920s, but thereafter, it started to fade away. In 1976, Bridgewater, New Hampshire resident Sam Worthen, whose great-great-uncle participated in the town’s first Old Home Day event back in 1899, decided to revive the tradition. Worthen and a bunch of his friends recruited Curren, then a young man, to help out with the heavy lifting. The renewed Bridgewater Bean-Hole Bean event was a huge hit, and the town has continued to celebrate it yearly ever since. In fact, Curren says, other New England towns inspired by Bridgewater’s event started doing it annually, too.
Sam Worthen’s Recipe for Bean-Hole Beans
Normally, the bean-hole crew of Bridgewater makes enough beans to feed at least 300 people using 25 pounds of beans. The following version of Worthen’s recipe has been decreased so you can make it on your stovetop at home. Or, if you have a covered kettle and are feeling adventurous, you can also make it in your fireplace.
2 ½ pounds dried beans (navy, kidney or Jacob’s cattle)
½ pound salt pork, cubed
1 ⅓ cup maple syrup or molasses
1 large onion, sliced
1 tablespoon salt
½ tablespoon powdered ginger
½ tablespoon powdered mustard
1 teaspoon pepper
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
- Soak the beans overnight in cold water in a large oven-proof pot or dutch oven.
- Freshen the water in the morning.
- Preheat the oven to 250°F.
- Bring the beans to a boil and let them simmer until the skins burst.
- Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, making sure to push the salt pork down beneath the beans.
- Top with boiling water to cover.
- Transfer the pot, covered to the oven to cook for eight hours. Add more water to cover, if necessary.
- Store leftovers in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for longer.