Lumberman’s Legacy – Bean Hole Beans
by Tom Seymour
Europeans first visiting what is now Maine were probably surprised to find the indigenous peoples engaged in agriculture. Squash and beans were two staples of the first Mainers and their method for cooking beans was nothing short of ingenious.
Call it the forerunner of our modern electric device, the crock-pot. A bean hole bean pit works in a similar manner, that being to maintain a low but constant cooking temperature over a long period of time. This insures that whatever is prepared in the hole, or pit, is fully cooked, but not burned or even scorched.
The Penobscot Nation made use of bean hole bean cookery and shared their knowledge with European settlers. And just as today’s bean hole bean chefs often acquire a certain degree of renown, individuals among the Penobscots surely enjoyed a similar kind of prestige. After all, not everyone can conjure a delicious pot of beans from a simple hole in the ground. Or can they?
Want to make something appealing, even something plain and simple? Then wrap it in secrecy and steep it in mystery. Add a touch of legend and people will not only desire it, but also demand it. That is what occurred through the centuries with bean hole beans.
But this was not always so. The process of cooking beans in a hole in the ground became routine with early settlers and when the demand for lumber grew and Maine became the lumber capital of the east, camp cooks were quick to make use of the age-old process of preparing bean hole beans.
In addition to the beans and other ingredients needed to make this humble dish, something else was required, and that in great quantity. Fuel, in this case, wood. Fortunately, Maine abounded (and still does) in hardwood trees.
A bean hole bean pit is, simply put, a hole in the ground that eats dry firewood. To begin, dig a three-foot-wide, three-foot-deep (these measurements can vary according to the size of the cooking vessel or vessels). Fill the hole with kindling and set it ablaze. Then, begin burning lengths of split, dried hardwood. Softwood doesn’t produce long-lasting coals, so it is not recommended.
As the wood burns, keep adding more, until the hole is about two-thirds filled with coals. Then it’s time to add the beans. These are pre-soaked and prepared ahead of time according to any number of recipes and placed in an iron container called a Dutch oven.
Dutch ovens are made of heavy, thick iron. This helps prevent burning the contents. But the top is where the genius of this device lies. A Dutch oven has a tight-fitting, rimmed lid. This serves two purposes. First, it makes the vessel airtight and second, the rim, when covered with hot coals, helps the contents to cook from the top down as well as from the sides and bottom.
Dutch ovens also have three short legs. This enables them to sit not only near, but also in a campfire. Many a perfect loaf of bread has come from a Dutch oven set on coals and covered with embers.
Of course the Penobscot Indians didn’t have iron pots, or at least they didn’t prior to the commencement of European trade. So they used clay pots. Dutch ovens are a European device, adapted to the process of making bean hole beans. And a wonderful blend of the primitive and the modern it is.
And today, we look at bean hole beans made in a Dutch oven and marvel over how such an old-time process can yield such sumptuous results. Perhaps someday, someone will devise a cooking vessel superior to the Dutch oven. But that probably won’t happen any time soon. The cooking method and the cooking vessel has come into being over a long, long stretch of years and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever improve upon it.
With the demise of old-time lumber camps, the bean hole fell into disuse. But not entirely. Not only have individuals kept the tradition alive, communities and organizations have as well. Year after year, towns, villages, churches, fraternal and community organizations throughout Maine host bean hole bean suppers. It’s amazing how a simple meal of bean hole beans, homemade biscuits, coffee, tea, cider, Cole slaw and a slice of homemade pie, can draw people from far and wide.
The mystery continues, too. Sit down at some public bean hole bean supper and listen to the conversation. “I can taste the smoke, can’t you?” runs the length of the tables. “He’s made bean hole beans for 50 years. I’d like to have his recipe,” frequently crops up as well. Let’s look at the facts behind the myths.
“That smoky taste.” Yes, untold numbers of bean hole bean aficionados attest to a certain smoky taste, the result of the Dutch oven being trapped among all those smoking coals. But remember that a Dutch oven has a near-airtight top. If it were otherwise, not only could smoke enter, but dirt, ashes and so on could as well.
In fact, upon buying a brand-new Dutch oven, many people also buy a container of valve-grinding compound. This, they apply to the edge of the rim and then slowly and steadily, twist the rim in place, smoothing it into a tight fit. In the end, steam can get out, for sure, but nothing else, including smoke, can enter.
And what about all those “secret” recipes? Well, there are only so many ways to make a pot of beans. Whereas the Penobscots used maple syrup as a sweetener, most modern bean hole bean chefs use molasses. Salt pork, too, is another staple. Dry, or powdered mustard and perhaps black pepper round out the list.
One variable, however, can make a difference in texture, if not taste. The beans themselves. Dry beans come in a number of varieties, all suitable for making bean hole beans. These include but are not limited to Jacob’s cattle, yellow-eye, great northern, pea bens and soldier beans.
We’ve discussed how to make a bean hole and how to fuel it. Now let’s consider some of the finer points of bean hole bean cookery. The Penobscots lined their bean holes with stones. These flat rocks helped hold the heat. But by making a larger hole and using more wood and ultimately, more coals, rocks and stones are not necessary.
However, scrap iron such as angle iron and old lengths of iron chain, serve the same purpose as stones and these can be added to the pit once a bed of coals becomes established. But again, that really isn’t needed.
One adaptation, however, makes the process much easier and certainly, safer on human hands. When it comes time to retrieve the Dutch oven, some kind of bail or handle extension works wonders. One simple innovation uses several metal coat hangers, fastened to the oven handle. When covering the oven with coals, the oven handle becomes very hot. The coat hanger (or other heavy wire) bail allows raising and lowering the pot, even with bare hands.
And now for the “secret recipe.” Well, sorry to shatter any preconceived notions, but there is no secret recipe, any more than there is no “secret” fiddlehead patch. Any baked bean recipe will work when making bean hole beans. But since every cook has their own, favorite recipe, here is one that works well for the author. Assemble the following:
2 pounds dry, yellow eye or Jacob’s cattle beans
2 large onions, quartered
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 pound salt pork, cut up into thumb-sized pieces
2 teaspoons unsulphured molasses
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Soak the beans overnight in a large bowl, adding water as they rehydrate. The next morning, drain, rinse and drain again. This removes the starch. Place the beans, along with the other ingredients, in a Dutch oven and cover with water. Stir the mixture, set the top on the oven and place the beans in the refrigerator or cool closet. Before placing in the bean hole, make sure the water level is to the top of the Dutch oven.
That’s it. Vary the recipe to taste.
Finally, The Maine Forest And Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley, Maine, presents their annual, fall Living History Days on Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bean hole beans are featured both days. Call the museum at (207) 974-6278 for more information.
Also, check local newspapers for community suppers throughout Maine. These often include bean hole beans. But if opportunity presents itself, do dig that bean hole and try your hand at making this ancient and honorable meal. Perhaps you, too, will become a legend in your own time.