Sunday, 19 May 2013

Baked Beans

Let me tell you the story of baked beans as I was told it. It may or may not be 100% accurate. But this is close to how it went.

Some time in the late 19th century a businessman from England was in the southern US, and met some cowboys who were cooking beans in a pot over a campfire and he thought it was interesting enough to take back to England and sell as a novelty food. There's no record of how they were cooked, but they were probably boiled with some salt pork added.

Baked beans were subsequently sold in cans to the very rich as something exotic, a delicacy from a foreign place. The Victorians liked stuff like that.

Now, as you know food evolves. Over the next century lots of things that started out as food for the desperately poor became far more respectable and vice versa. In North America beans went upscale. Good cooks added different flavours in different locales according to local cuisine, until it became a bit of  luxury food because of the long cooking time.

In Britain however it became mass produced as a canned food, and extremely popular as a working-class vegetable, to the point where it reached a level approaching "national dish" status.

While canned beans were also subsequently sold in North America, they never quite reached the same status.

When I was a child I was introduced to beans in two main ways. One was beans on toast. This was a quick light meal, very cheap, and a bit of a staple. I have given this considerable thought, and decided that it played the same role in Britain as boxed mac and cheese played in North America. When money was short, this was a common option, and I still joke, when we have a big expense "Hey ho, beans on toast for dinner for a month".

And just like the North American attitude to boxed mac and cheese, many people nevertheless developed a fondness for this poverty food. Despite eating beans on toast during my most broke days, I still like it. I especially like it upgraded to beans on cheese on toast.

But how I serve it now is usually with sausages or pie. Again, this was how I experienced beans as a child. A slightly spicy tomatoey flavour right alongside a slightly spicy pork flavour. Not a million miles from the North American connection to pork, but in a different way.

When we first came to Canada I had problems finding canned baked beans that I liked. Different market, even the Heinz ones were a slightly different recipe. I found they lacked the punch of the ones I was familiar with, so I stirred in a little ketchup. But over the years I have adjusted to the Canadian brands, and find the British ones a little bland. So either that recipe has changed, or I have.

PLEASE NOTE WE ALWAYS BUY THE "REGULAR" ONES. Not the ones with things added (blob of fat, etc).

So. I had heard of people making these from scratch. People raved about it as comfort food, it was always an old family recipe and so on. Food nostalgia, a very powerful thing. I thought it was an awful lot of work for a side dish, but it would be an interesting experiment.

I used a recipe for making them in a slow cooker. It was described as a traditional recipe, and had a long list of ingredients, which I followed faithfully with one exception, molasses. I don't do molasses. I especially didn't want these to come out too sweet.

After 4 hours they smelled OK, but not right, so I tasted it. Didn't taste REMOTELY like the beans I was used to. Wasn't nice at all. I suppose that only goes to show just how different modern canned beans are from older dishes.

I then set about trying to improve it. I added ketchup for a start. That helped but now I had left behind any ideas of a scratch recipe. I then added various other flavours until it was palatable. It took me a long time, add a bit, cook, taste, and so on. By the time I'd finished, what I had achieved was a pretty close approximation to a can of beans, if I say so myself, and it had only taken me all day to do it.

The conclusion is clear. I am better off buying them in a can. I tried making ketchup from scratch once, too, and found that just as disappointing and just as futile.

You may be shaking your head at me now, the person who advocates scratch cooking. But only a really hifalutin gourmet chef makes everything from scratch. I've even seen Jamie Oliver use ketchup in recipes.

What we're talking about here is not so much about cooking but about expectations, and to a certain extent culture. The idea of the modern British having a culture at all makes you laugh, but it's there, living quietly in older people and quite naturally, especially in ex-pats.

I have been teased, gently, by North American friends, for my love of baked beans, and a sort of purist attitude towards them. But I take no notice, as they all have something boxed or canned that they proudly love, or even eat with guilt, or make excuses for.


  1. I have many dishes where I use canned soups in a recipe. Especially canned tomato soup.
    Something which is very North American from the 60's I think...perhaps even the 50's. (My father will not touch a mac and cheese which does not have a can of tomato soup thrown in and it must be Campbells Tomato soup.
    When I thought I was going to Italy I started studying a bit of the cuisine I could expect to find. I learned that almost everything we think of as Italian food is in fact American Italian and does not at all look like its predecessor from the home country. Cultures have always taken a bit of their homeland and reinvented it according to what they could actually attain in their new land.

    1. Oh yes. But what is so entertaining is second generation Italians etc arguing about what is or isn't authentic. It can get REALLY heated. People get terribly confused between what they have experienced themselves and what they see as written-in-stone-authentic.