Today most people are far too busy to cook anything like baked beans, which take up to 8 hours of slow oven baking. But there is still interest in this hearty dish of dried beans simmered in pork and molasses or maple syrup.
The proof is at the Pomme de Terre restaurant on Newbury Street in Boston, where customers may bring in the family bean pot on Thursday or Friday and pick it up on Saturday full of slow-cooked, authentic Boston baked beans.
These ''take out'' baked beans are cooked with loving care at this family establishment, owned and operated by Donald Gibson, his two sisters, and other family members.
Years ago everybody in New England had baked beans as the main dish for supper on Saturday night. But New England isn't the only place where baked beans were common. They were a basic standby thousands of miles away from Boston, in towns in Kansas and Minnesota, and in homes where Yankee cookbooks had been carried west in covered wagons.
Even in those early days, there was always a little controversy about exact recipes for baked beans and brown bread.
In an 1874 cookbook, for example, I found a recipe for Boston brown bread using graham flour and ''Indian meal.'' Cornmeal is a basic ingredient for brown bread, but the flour ranges from graham to whole-wheat, rye, and white.
Bostonians, as well as Maine residents, insist on salt pork and molasses, with small white pea beans or yellow eyes. Vermonters, on the other hand, sweeten their beans with maple syrup. Some people add small onions, cloves, or bay leaf, and people outside New England often bake their beans with chili or ketchup.
Today, even in country towns, home-baked beans do not fit into most life styles, because they need slow cooking for 6 to 8 hours. Mothers who stay home all day with small children can manage it if they have the right kind of stove.
But the demise of the old-fashioned cookstove was the cause of the end of the Saturday-night ritual. Once the American housewife had a gas or electric range in her kitchen, there was no need to keep a fire going all day long.
Many people who have resurrected antique woodstoves are baking beans, too. They can utilize the heated oven while the stove helps to heat the house.
The classic bean pot can be used for more than just ordinary baked beans. Other dishes include all dried beans and their relatives, such as black, or kidney beans, chickpeas, soybeans, green split peas, pinto beans, and lentils. These all come out of the pot in many flavors and are hearty, delicious, cheap, and easy.
A good bean pot is usually of brown stoneware or glazed earthenware, but it can be Pyrex or steel with baked-on enamel. The material doesn't matter as long as the pot resists heat, is well-glazed, is deep, and has a cover.
There is no better combination with baked beans than the classical one: codfish cakes and brown bread. But other dishes that go well are cole slaw, tossed green salad, sliced ham, frankfurters, and almost any kind of crisp, homemade pickles, from mustard pickles to the green tomato relish known as piccalilli.
Instead of steamed brown bread, consider serving cornbread or whole-wheat bread, rolls or soda biscuits. You don't need a lot of extra things when serving baked beans. Although far from a company dish, they disappear quickly at an outing, a party, or on a buffet table.
Here is the basic recipe I have used for many years. It is found with slight variations in most New England cookbooks, including ''The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.''
Boston Baked Beans
2 cups yellow eye, navy, or small white beans 1/4 pound salt pork, cut in half 1 small onion, peeled 1 to 2 teaspoons dry mustard 4 tablespoons molasses 3 tablespoons brown sugar
Soak beans overnight or for 10 to 12 hours in water to cover. Bring to boiling point and simmer gently until skins burst, about 1 hour. Drain, saving water.
Put one piece of salt pork and onion in bottom of a 2-quart, or larger, bean pot. Cover with beans to within an inch of the top.
Combine remaining ingredients with bean liquid and add to pot. Score remaining salt pork with several gashes and place on top.
Cover and bake about 6 hours in oven that has been preheated to 325 degrees F.
Do not stir while baking, but add water as needed to keep beans covered. Remove bean-pot cover for final hour of cooking, so pork and beans will be brown and crisp.
After 3 to 4 hours baking time, taste to see if flavor is sweet enough to your taste. If not, add more brown sugar or molasses.
Serves 6 to 8.
Some of my favorite bean-pot recipes are from ''The Benevolent Bean,'' a cookbook by Margaret and Ancel Keys (Doubleday, 1967). Here are a couple you might like to try in your bean pot Or casserole. Quick Lima Bean Pot 1/2 pound frankfurters in 1-inch pieces 1 cup celery, diced 1/2 cup chopped onion 2 tablespoons oil 2 10-ounce packages frozen lima beans 2 teaspoons prepared mustard 1 10-ounce can tomatoes 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1 tablespoon vinegar Salt to taste
Cook frankfurters, celery, and onion in oil in skillet 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Transfer to bean pot and add remaining ingredients with 1/2 cup water.
Cover and bake 45 minutes in oven heated to 350 degrees F. Stir once or twice; add more water if necessary. Season with salt.
It is said that it was for a dish of this sort that Esau sold his birthright. Variations of this lamb and lentil stew are found in many eastern Mediterranean countries. Pottage of Lentils 1 pound lentils 3 quarts water 6 small onions 1 pound lamb shoulder, in 1/2-inch cubes 1/4 cup oil 4 carrots, chopped 1 green pepper, seeded, chopped 1 16-ounce can tomatoes 2 stalks celery, sliced Salt and pepper to taste
Combine lentils with 3 quarts water in large kettle and bring slowly to the boiling point. Reduce heat and allow to simmer a few minutes. Turn off heat and allow lentils to stand 1 to 2 hours.
Cook onion and meat in oil about 10 minutes. Drain lentils, saving liquid. Combine lentils, meat, and vegetables in 2-quart bean pot, adding liquid to cover. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and bake 2 hours in 250 degree F. oven.