New England’s tradition of baked beans and brown bread dates back to the area’s earliest settlers, according to Sandra Oliver, a food historian from Maine who lives in Islesboro.
First of all, the origins of brown bread. Wheat was not widely available in early New England, Oliver said, so poorer people “often ate combinations of coarser grains, like rye or oats, and sometimes legumes. crushed to make a kind of flour which they mixed with other flour “.
A combination of rye flour and cornmeal resulted in rye and Indian bread, which was “very dense,” Oliver said. “” He didn’t increase as much as he swelled.
When wheat was available it was expensive, so it was often reserved for “fine bakery” like pastries and cakes, while rye and Indian bread became the common daily bread.
Wheat was also added to what was called “third bread,” a bread made from one-third wheat, one-third rye, and one-third cornmeal. Add a little molasses and by the mid-1800s you have New England brown bread.
“If you look at a classic New England brown bread recipe, you’ll see that it contains a third of each of these major grains, descending from the old third bread of the late 1700s to the early 1900s.” Oliver said. âIt’s more of a steamed pudding, really, than a bread. It contained molasses, sour milk, and baking soda, which were more widely available by mid-century. “
Once the Erie Canal opened in 1825, wheat flour became much more widely available and the price plummeted. But New Englanders still tasted their own brown bread.
19th-century households typically baked bread and pies on Saturdays, Oliver said. These are first passed through the brick kiln.
âThen to finish, you put in a pot of beans for a long, slow cooking at a decreasing heat,â Oliver said. These beans, along with the brown bread, were dinner on Saturday. Often the beans were still hot on Sunday morning, providing delicious leftovers.
Today, said Oliver, the leftover baked beans in the refrigerator “are like money in the bank.”
âI really like baked beans on toast with a little sliced ââonion on it and grated cheese,â she said. “You put it under the grill and what a wonderful lunch it is.” Yum Yum Yum.”
Oliver prefers to make her own baked beans using beans that she collects from her garden and dries herself. Still, she was sad to learn that the B&M Portland plant was moving to the Midwest.
“With the rails torn and having to ship beans, I understand why they are moving it,” she said, “but it’s heartbreaking nonetheless.”
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