EDDINGTON, Maine — In the grey pre-dawn light, throwing armfuls of wood on the fire he kindled in a hole just outside the Eddington-Clifton Civic Center, Josh Parda had one thing on his mind: baked beans.
But not any old kind of baked bean. Parda, 35, was on a mission last Friday morning to make gallons of sweet, savory bean-hole beans the old-fashioned way — by baking them for hours in cast-iron pots buried in the ground.
“Fire, coals and cast iron or earthenware pots. It’s a pretty easy way to cook a whole bunch of food for a whole bunch of people,” he said. “And relative to a can of beans, they taste very much better.”
Making bean-hole beans is a Maine food tradition that is woven into the state’s history and heritage. Still, many folks these days may only have seen the cooking technique demonstrated at places such as the Common Ground Fair in Unity, the Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley or at the occasional bean-hole bean supper. That’s too bad, according to Parda and other fans of the culinary specialty, which demands a lot of work and firewood at the outset and then a lot of patience while waiting for the heat to work its magic on the buried pots of beans.
“When they’re done cooking, it’s just deliciousness,” he said. “It’s very rare that we have beans left over.”
Bean-hole bean history
The first people to make beans this way were Native Americans, who utilized the in-ground cooking technique for other foods, too. Building a bed of coals and then covering it with dirt — or seaweed, in the case of a clambake seaweed — created a rudimentary, slow-cooking oven that yielded tasty results.
“The bean was an integral part of the Native American diet,” according to a history of bean-hole beans from the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine. “Often called the ‘poor man’s meat,’ beans are rich in protein, supplying a third of the essential amino acids to the corn, bean and squash trinity. In the northeast, Boston would not be called ‘Bean-town’ if it weren’t for the beans adopted from the Native American custom of cooking beans and maple syrup with bits of venison or fish or corn.”
When colonists settled in New England, they learned about bean-hole beans from the Native Americans, then made some tweaks to the basic recipe, replacing maple syrup with molasses and fish or venison with salt pork. The Saturday night staple recipe was popular in part because it could be reheated to eat Sunday, thus sparing cooks from working on the Sabbath. But it was lumber camps in the north woods where bean-hole beans became the stuff of legend. Lumbermen worked hard and needed to keep up their energy by eating foods high in calories, fat and protein. Beans baked with salt pork and bacon fit the bill. In fact, bean-hole beans were on the menu at lumber camps almost every day.
“It was common in lumber camps,” Parda, who worked at the Maine Folklife Center while working on his master’s degree in history at the University of Maine, said. “When you have to feed a bunch of people thousands of calories a day, beans and bread is the most efficient way to do it.”
Bean-hole bean method
In Eddington, the civic center — also called Comins Hall — has featured periodic bean-hole bean suppers for about seven years, since Ursa Beckford built a permanent bean-hole setup outside as part of his Eagle Scout project. Beckford, now 23 and a recent graduate from the College of the Atlantic, told the BDN this week that as a teenager he spoke with the volunteers at the civic center to learn what project would be most useful to the community group.
“The two things we came up with was to build the bean-hole bean site and a couple of benches,” Beckford said. “I had seen them cooked at the Common Ground Fair. That’s where I had most of my experience with them. At the fair, they dig a hole in the ground every time they cook the beans. The hall wanted a permanent structure so they could use the same hole every time.”
Beckford decided to start with a section of a huge steel pipe, which he placed in a shallow hole dug into the ground. Then he built up around it with sand, high enough to cover the sides of the steel pipe. The structure is about 3 feet in diameter, and the hole is about 3 feet deep, which is unlike traditional bean-holes that are dug into the ground but fairly easy to use because the cooks do not have to dig a deep hole in the ground every time they have a supper. The technique was simple but has proved sturdy enough to have endured years of bean-hole bean suppers without any real damage or changes to it. Beckford has moved away from the community and no longer participates in the events, but is glad his permanent bean-hole is still in use.
On Friday morning, Parda, who is one of many people who volunteer their services to the civic center for the bean suppers and other events, too, fed the fire with slender sticks of hardwood donated by the nearby Peavey Manufacturing Co. The goal was to achieve a bed of glowing coals that was big enough to surround the cast iron bean pot, and it took more than two hours to get there. Meanwhile, Parda darted between the kitchen, where 12 pounds of Maine-grown yellow-eye beans had been soaked overnight, and the fire pit, with its constant hunger for more hardwood.
After the beans were soaked, he placed them on the stove in the kitchen to parboil for a couple of hours, a step necessary because the quantity of beans in the cast-iron pans would be so great that they might not fully cook within eight hours. Then came the fun part, as he ladled the beans into the cast iron pots and seasoned them heavily with molasses, bacon, salt pork, sugar, pepper, mustard and onion.
“There’s been a lot of trial-and-error testing,” he said of the process to settle on the right recipe, which he believes has been achieved.
Parda then covered up the beans with water and wrestled the heavy pots outside to the bed of coals. He shoveled some of the coals into metal trash cans, lowered the Dutch ovens into the fire pit and then put a rock on top of them to hold the lids on. Parda then dumped the coals that were in the trash can back into the fire pit, so they were completely surrounding the Dutch ovens, then covered the pit with a steel lid and shoveled sand on that. The goal was to get the heat trapped inside the pit.
Then it was a waiting game, with the beans on track to be taken out of the hole by 4 p.m. that day, just in time to fill containers for the hungry hordes. The community civic center, a mammoth three-story building that was built by the Eddington Agrarian Club in the late 1870s, hosts many public and private functions. It also needs regular maintenance, some of which is paid for by the popular suppers.
“We have a number of regular hall fundraisers,” Parda said. “The suppers are our biggest.”
Knowing that the bean suppers continue to be a popular event in Eddington and that the bean hole is still being used feels good to Beckford, who built it.
“It’s super exciting,” he said. “My hope from the outset was that it would continue to be used regularly, and I am excited that it is being used, for sure.”