Toss the Kale, Shelve the Sushi: the Real Boston can be found in a Pot of Beans

By Phineas J. Stone

The chill of fall always makes me think of beans.

Boston is the so-called ‘Beantown,’ even if the old moniker no longer sticks to a new, sleek City made of reflective glass – not brick and granite – and trending more to sushi than molasses-soaked brown bread dripping of beans.

For most of its history, Boston was practical, frugal, religious and not too worried about how food tasted. The death of those four attributes some time in the late 1970s was pretty much the death of the widespread Saturday night bean dinner.

We’re not talking about Goya beans from a can, or some type of Chili with cayenne pepper – nor is it the dark kidney beans from the cauldron of a cowboy trail drive cook.

It was Boston’s dinner, and most accepted that fact even if it wasn’t in their cultural tradition. Quite obviously a Puritanical invention devoid of any taste or culinary thought, Catholics, Jews, Italians and the Irish who came to Boston settled in on their own bean dinners and fusion recipes.

I remember quite vividly the family bean dinners, which in Boston happened on Saturday. Tradition says you were to soak it all up with brown bread, but our family was pretty exclusively attached to the Italian Scali loaf – so we would use that instead of the brown bread. Everyone had their own way of making beans, but the basics of the deal were to start with a broth, add some sort of leftover ham bone or smoked ham hock, lots of molasses or brown sugar and those little brown beans. Then it was to simmer for what seemed like two weeks.

The dish was all about sweetness, though many of us associate beans these days with something exotic and tongue-burning. Boston beans were sweet, and a little smokey from the ham, loaded with sugary molasses that harkened back to the days when Boston traders brought rum and molasses to town in exchange for slaves. I’m pretty sure the old bean recipe had something to do with the glut of molasses that oozed in waterfront tanks in the times when the bean dinner was codified into the overall culture.

Rich and poor ate beans on Saturday, and no one knew why.

An article I once read in a cooking magazine about Boston beans assured readers that up until the modern era, one could be certain that the Brahmins on Beacon Hill were eating the same beans as the immigrants in the North End come Saturday at 7 p.m.

I’m not going to venture to say anyone liked it, because I can’t say that I did. It was more like a reflex than a choice. That’s one reason I don’t like to try to explain the food choices made by people in the past, simply because my own choices most of the time lack thorough planning or thought. I’m all for a good, well-planned, adequately-coursed meal – whether in or out – but truth be told, most of the time I’m eating whatever I can find and that means 70 percent of the time I’m not all that excited about what I’ve found. Yet, I eat it anyway and then move on with my day or night.

There aren’t many people today or in the past that have had time to carefully plan out thoughtful cuisine three times a day every day – aside from those on TV in the British dramas about wealthy folks.

I think Boston’s bean culture started just because it’s what they had around. It was warm food, filling and with good nutritional value. For people who probably scarcely had meat, I’m sure beans were a great alternative to get the protein to keep one alive. I imagine, too, in the days before refrigeration, they could keep beans sitting around for days.

I heard a presentation at a historical society in the basement of an old Boston church some years ago about the bean culture. I think of beans in the fall because that was particularly the time when churches would have a social bean and ham dinner. Some of the old time ‘First Churches’ still have those. You can find them if you look around, and I recently ran into a woman in a church basement whipping up a bland pot of beans from a recipe handed down in her family for about five generations, she said.

“More than anything, it’s about getting the amount of molasses right,” she told me, noting that if it’s too sweet, the smokey ham hocks will combine to make a very bitter and unpleasant taste. “Then you have to be patient and let it cook for a long time.”

At the historical presentation, the speaker indicated beans were cheap and plentiful in the early days of the Hub. They provided protein in an environment that had little regular access to meat. They were also easy to cook when houses used open hearths and not stoves. In those days, work on Sunday was prohibited, he said, so a big pot of beans could last a couple of days and prevent the women from breaking religious regulations.

I’ve seen similar recollections in old newspaper articles archived on the Internet, so I guess there must be something to that.

That’s when we were frugal, and weathering a winter in Boston required planning and careful calculation in the fall.

Boston will likely always be the ‘Beantown,’ but these days it’s more for the tourists than the people. The “New Boston” doesn’t eat beans; it eats sushi tapas and Brazilian-infused fish tacos.

But I have a feeling there’s always going to be some little old lady in a church basement on a Saturday afternoon in the fall, arranging some brown bread on a plate while a large pot simmers with sweet beans.

As long as that’s happening somewhere in the city, Boston will still be Boston.


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