A Letter From Maine's Beantown
INTERESTING (to me) that M. Larousse, the accepted world authority on la bonne chere, says nothing in his exhaustive compendium about the lowly baked bean as encouraged here in Maine. He dwells ecstatically on many ways to prepare the "American white bean" but I gather he doesn't know what a bean pot is - also he likes the word haricot whereas our French-speaking patrons of our traditional Saturday Night Special like the word feve.It was not Boston, as erroneously ascribed, that gave us the baked bean, but the French settlers of Ste. Croix Island, here in Maine, who learned from the Indians how to bake on hot rocks, and had a good crop of beans for drying in 1605. Since that time, baked beans have been des feves, and if you want to buy a bean pot in French Canada, ask for un pot pour des feves. Basically, the recipe soaks dry beans overnight, and then in an earthenware pot all day - but there are umpty-ump variations as to condiments. The spurious contention that baked beans originated in Boston persists in spite of the facts. Puritan Bostonians refrained from cooking on the Lord's Day, and cold baked beans left over from Saturday night nourished them on the Sabbath while they went hunting witches. History, however, indicates that the French settlers on Ste. Croix Island did not eat thus by conscience, but had beans three times a day during 1605, 1606, and 1607. This regularity persisted when the Maine timberlands were first subjected to the ax, and lumber camps were built. Processing and refrigeration hadn't been refined, and a supply of baking beans would keep for years. The crockery pot common in Maine kitchens became a distinctively styled cauldron of cast iron, holding enough for a considerable crew and capable of baking in an oven or in a bean hole. When winter relented around the edges and the men made ready to "drive" the harvest to mill on the spring freshet, Cook would send his cookees and his bull cook downstream to keep ahead of the moving crew. The bull cook, who did everything except cook, would prepare bean holes. The round stones he selected from the riverbank to line the holes would be hot from a fire, and upon arriving Cook would lower in his iron bean pot, cover it with dirt, and allow the residual heat to work overnight. When the "driv e" arrived, beans were ready. Back in the 1930s, it became politically fashionable to join a union, and somehow one of our Maine lumber camps got unionized. Among the "grievances" was the constant presence of baked beans. The men, so the organizers said, were being fed baked beans to their constant disgust and annoyance, and were entitled to better treatment. Management agreed that times had changed, and logistics no longer depended on the basic baked bean as such. The diet would be rearranged. The strike thus came to an end, and the men returned to work. And when the gong sounded and the crew came into the cookshack for supper, can you guess? The clamor went up, "Where are the baked beans?" Bill Pelletier, who cooked at Chesunccok Dam camp for years, told me about that, and said he put beans back on the table and they stayed there. This year the Maine Forest Service, a state department, is 100 years old, and the occasion was observed at Greenville, on Mighty Moosehead Lake, with appropriate ceremonies. The forest rangers demonstrated fire-fighting maneuvers, equipment makers had exhibitions, timberland owners participated, and old-timers gathered to tell tall tales and remember the good times. Appropriately, a "baked-bean dinner" was served in the community hall by the ready workers of the United Church. From five to seven, the posters promised, and the place was mobbed when my personal bean-baking expert and I arrived at 5:30. While we waited we spoke to others in line, and learned we were not entirely indigenous. Plenty of flatlanders and summercaters and folks "from away," and all eager for the feast. When we got seats we were across the table from some Pennsylvanians. And as people were still coming, we didn't dillydally, but finished our heaping plates and left so others might enjoy. As we stepped out of the community hall, a ready worker was tacking up a sign. It said: SOLD OUT - SORRY! So much for Larousse.