Bean Hole Beans, by Bernard Ten Bears
Bean hole beans are a New England tradition that extends from our beginning contacts with Native Americans on this continent. Settlers learned many things about wild game and cooking techniques from the people that had lived here for thousands of years. One such tradition is cooking in fire pits in the ground.
Boston wasn't called "Bean Town" for nothing. Saturday night beans was, and in some cases, is the fare at any church supper and sometimes at home on Saturday nights to this day. Beans were the most common food for river drivers during the long log drives of the past. Many cooks and cookee's dug pits in the sand along the banks and kindled fires to make a hearty repast for hungry loggers.
I would like to share with you exactly how you might get your own taste of one of my favorite foods. I will try to make my explanations as simple as possible . If done right, it's actually a pretty easy task to make a batch. There are a few beauties of cooking in the ground. Once the beans are in, you don't have to tend them at all, like something cooking in the oven. You just leave them until they are done and ready to eat.
1. Find a place where it is legal and safe to dig a hole, and build a fire. If you need a permit, get one. On your own property here in Maine, none is needed if you are cooking food and on your own land. If you go to your local authority they will assist you in obtaining a permit, and you may even get an interested landowner to let you cook on their property, if you give them a few beans...
2. Dig a hole, preferably in the softest soil you can find, about 3 feet deep and 3 feet across (in any direction); this is not an exact science.
3. Obtain about 30 pieces of nice dry split hardwood firewood (about a 8th of a cord). A cord of hardwood firewood is 16 inches wide, 4 feet high and 24 feet long. Get enough dry kindling wood to ignite your hardwood. You can start the fire with paper and matches or use lighter fluid, the same as you would for charcoal or any other cooking fire. It's easiest to pile your wood beside the hole. I get most of my hardwood and kindling for beanholing at the local transfer station (dump). People throw away lots of useful things you know. My favorite is when someone has cut down an apple tree and brought it there all cut up in easy-to-carry blocks, all nice and dry. Apple wood makes a wonderful flavor in any outdoor cooked food.
4.Obtain 1 or 2- 6 quart cast iron pots with lids. I use dutch ovens, cast iron pots or cauldrons, whatever I can find. I have one dutch oven I bought from Cabela's and an antique kettle I picked up on ebay. Yardsales are also a great place to pick up cheap cast iron and any local Walmart usually stocks ironware. In Maine, a quick search of an attic or basement at friends or relatives homes will usually net you at least one kettle that someone had for camping years ago. Scour the rust off with a stainless steel scouring pad, grease it with Crisco, and you are ready to go.
5. You will need 4 pounds of dry beans, soaked overnight in cold water-so you have to start your preparations the night before; if you are shooting for Saturday night beans, you need to put them to soak on Thursday night after you get home from work (for those of you who do work).
6. Obtain 3-one pound pieces of salt pork, a quart of molasses, dry mustard, an onion and some salt and pepper. (Pork keeps well in the freezer, so you can get any of these things before hand and just save them for the time you want to begin this project.
7. Friday night when you get home from work at 4-5:00 p.m. load the hole with wood (put the kindling in on the bottom and pile as much wood as you can on top-all of it if it will work) light the hole. Keep in mind, you have put the beans to soak the night before and you are lighting the hole in the late afternoon on Friday. The fire will need a couple of hours and you need to let it burn down to coals.
8.Bring your kettles and ingredients out by the hole, I use a picnic table to work on . Cut your pork in one inch slices and then cube it up, leaving the cubes on each slice holding on by the skin. As it cooks, they will come apart on their own. Set it aside. Use one large onion for each pot, peel it cut it into 4's and put it in the bottom. Dump your (soaked) beans in water and all. Put a cup or cup and a half of molasses in each pot, as well as 3 big pinches of dry mustard, a pinch of pepper and here's the trick with the salt. If the salt pork feels gritty, as in it's very salty, put just a teaspoon or two of salt in each pot. If the pork is not too salty, add more salt, about a couple of tablespoons each. Always remember that beans can be flavored to taste when they come out. Lay the salt pork on top and then add water to the kettles until it runs out. Unlike beans in the oven, you can not add water to them once they are in the ground. At this point, some folks like to put aluminum foil between the beans and the lid. I don't and they come out O.K. for me. Put the lids on the kettles.
9. After the fire goes to all coals, the hole should be about half full or more, you can't have too many, rake a hole down into them big enough for your kettle, or kettles, according to how many you want to do. Lower the kettles into the hole and make sure that when they are in they are sitting level or the water will run out of the kettles (either putting out your fire or eventually burning the beans because they didn't have enough water on them). I lower the kettles into the hole by hooking the wire bail on a 4 tine garden cultivator and hoist them down in. You can use a rope if you have some help, or if you are inventive, you can use a chain with a hook of some fashion in the center of the chain.
10. When the kettles are in the coals use the rake to surround the kettle with coals and rake some up on top of the kettles. I usually throw an old piece of tin on top of them to keep dirt off the kettles, but you can shovel the dirt right on them, it won't hurt em'. Shovel the dirt you dug out of the hole back in; deep enough so that the coals are insulated well and no smoke or steam is escaping anywhere.
11. Leave the pots in the ground overnight. You can dig them out for breakfast, lunch or supper. They will be ready and hot as long as you have cooked them through the night. When you dig them out, mind that you do not burn your hand on the wire bail of the kettle, it could still be hot. I usually dust the coals and dirt off the lid with an old paintbrush, open the kettles and add a cup or cup and a half of regular sugar or brown sugar and stir it in while the beans are still warm and put the lids back on the kettle until I am ready to serve them.
I make biscuits to go with the beans by using the instructions on the back of a can of Bakewell Creme, a Maine staple, and find that cornbread is always welcome with the beans too. In Northern Maine we make a meal of just beans, but biscuits, coleslaw, Jordan's red hot dogs or homemade dinner rolls add to the fare.
My best wishes for your success if you try this. It's well worth it if you are a baked bean fan you'll love the smokey flavor of these and will also be enjoying a tradition well worth keeping alive.
Bernard Ten Bears
* Note from M.O.H. - Bernard Ten Bears fed me a mighty feast of Bean Hole Beans when I was in Maine this past summer. I'm not a salt pork kind of guy, but I was begging for piece after piece. These beans, made by a masterful cook, such as Bernard Ten Bears, are an absolute treat and feast. I highly encourage anyone to try these. You will eat until you can't eat any more, then you'll eat more!
On a side note, we'll have to get B.T.B. to show his method for making biscuits in his dutch oven. We did that this summer and his dutch oven is so big that it took two (not small) men to haul the dutch oven out to the fire. He served them with butter and jam. I will NEVER forget that taste.
Pax Domini Sit Semper Vobiscum,
Mike, Oscar, Hotel....out.