In Britain and other nations that practiced aggressive colonialism, a lot of so called “traditional” dishes don’t actually come from the local regions where they are revered, and are in fact imports from periods of their colonial expansion. Just a few examples for the UK include curry (the spices came from India), fish and chips (potatoes came from North America), and maybe a bit more surprisingly – baked beans!
The history of baked beans, an iconic staple food, is shrouded in mystery, as no one knows their origins for certain. However, the most likely story is that they were adapted from a Native American dish when the people in the New England colonies such as at Jamestown, Plymouth Rock and New Amsterdam were living in close proximity to the Indigenous peoples in the North-East region of what is now known as the United States of America.
Since 1492, white Europeans were in contact with the Indigenous peoples of North America and by the 17th Century, these colonies along the east coast occupied the same regions as tribes such as the Iroquois, Narragansett and Penobscot. As the available foodstuffs in the so-called “New World” differed to that of Europe, colonists had to quickly adapt, and this included integrating Indigenous cuisine into their diets. One of the tastier dishes that they are thought to have adopted from the tribes around them has now become one of the most popular convenience foods in the USA & UK.
It is believed that the original recipe for what we now think of as ‘baked beans’ included soaking haricot beans, which are a native legume to the Americas, and then mixing them with a combination of maple syrup, venison meat and bear fat. The dish would be slow-cooked over an open fire or in a fire pit which was called the “bean hole”, either in a clay or deer skin pot. It is understandable that such a delicious-sounding dish became popular with the colonial settlers on the east coast. Many of the people had fled from European countries and cities due to religious persecution, and many of these groups were Puritan Christians. They followed a strict regime, and this included a full day at church on Sunday. The climate in the North-East of North America is very unforgiving and can be susceptible to many cold fronts and snowy weather, so throughout the winter and after a long day in a cold and drafty church, the worshippers would no doubt want a nice warm meal. So, a common colonial ‘life hack’ would be to prepare a large pot of baked beans on the Saturday evening, keep them on a steady heat over a fire, and then they would still be lovely and hot after church on Sundays. This can be seen as the first example of baked beans being used as a convenience food. However, there is a bit of a difference between cooking them over night in the 17th century and for three minutes on the stove in the 21st century!
Over time, the recipe would be adapted, the venison would be switched out for salted pork or bacon and the maple syrup would be switched out for molasses. This version of the recipe is now better known as “Boston baked beans” and is still a very popular variety of the dish to this day in the region where the colonists adopted the recipe from their Indigenous neighbours. In fact, a popular nickname for the city of Boston, Massachusetts, is ‘Beantown’! The haricot bean that the dish is created from can also be known as a “Boston bean”.
Baked beans continued to develop into a convenience food throughout the years and in the late 19th Century an American man named Henry J. Heinz realized the potential of canning up foods for preservation and ease. In the early days, baked beans in a can were even considered a luxury item and quickly became popular overseas in the UK. Overtime, the sweet molasses-based sauce was swapped for a tomato-based sauce, and at the start of WW1, due to rationing, the meat was taken out and the tinned baked beans became the version that is still well-loved throughout the world to this day.
– by James Lapping