A bean hole is a means of cookin' baked beans which was originally used by the Native Americans populating the Northeast. The Abenaki and other local tribes had been doing this for years using clay pots covered in deerskins. As the colonists arrived and started setting up industry, one that arose in Maine (naturally) was logging. Logging camps were populated by cold, tired and hungry workers in the evenings, far from resupply and with little food storage amenities. Beans were a favorite staple food, as not only were they high in protein but dried beans could be stored very easily for long periods of time. The loggers learned quickly from the local inhabitants that the bean hole was a great way to have dinner waiting for you when you got back to camp.

Most literally, a bean hole is a hole in the ground. Dug to a depth of around 3 feet, the original bean holes were simple holes, lined with rocks to retain heat. The hole should be large enough that after being lined, there is 3-8 inches of clearance around the edge of your cook pot. A Dutch oven works wonderfully, or if you have a dedicated bean pot, you're in the money. Once you've dug and lined the hole, start a hardwood fire in it (pine is no good, it burns out too quickly and doesn't leave appropriate coals). Keep adding wood until there is a layer of red-to-white hot coals some 10 inches or more deep at the bottom of the hole. Some folks advise that it's quicker to use 2 to 3 inch diameter sticks rather than large logs, as they reduce to coal faster.

When the coals are ready, cover your pot o' beans with a lid, then put a wet towel or sack over the lid to ensure it seals. Lower the pot into the center of the bean hole. Using a shovel, scoop some of the coals over on to the top of the pot and up the sides, and then fill the bean hole in with earth so that the pot is covered by at least 3 inches of soil. Then...wait. It can take anywhere from 8 to 24 hours to slow-cook beans in a bean hole, depending on how many beans you have and how many coals you have. The longer you cook them, the better broken down they'll be - the softer and tastier.

When done, carefully uncover the pot, lift it out (a hook is helpful for this, or a pole if your Dutch oven has a hanging handle) and serve!

Some folks, like the gent in this New York Times article, have a 'fancy' bean hole lined with firebrick with a fitting clay and/or metal top. That works, sure. Or you can just use soil, if you're not worried about it lookin' nice when you're done. If you go low-tech, though, do make sure to have a bunch of large-potato-sized or larger rocks in there with the coals, either lining it or added to the fire as it burns, so that they can retain heat.

Oh, you want a recipe for the beans? Hm. Okay. I've only made this twice, back in summer camp - I've relied on other folks the other times, and bean recipes can sometimes be a source of great secret superiority!

Ingredients (adjust quantities for pot size):

  • 2 lb. heritage beans (Soldier, Marafax, Jacob's Cattle, Yellow Eye). It can be done with kidney beans, but it won't taste quite as nice.
  • 2 lb. salt pork
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 6 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce, if available
  • 1 apple, cored and sliced thin (optional)
  • 3 Tsp. powdered mustard
  • 1-2 Tbsp. salt to taste
  • 1/2-3/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 medium-sized onion, diced
Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Drain and recover with fresh water; simmer them for an hour to 90 minutes. If the skin of a bean deforms when you blow on it, they're done. Add all the other ingredients to the pot (so make sure it can handle the volume!) and then add boiling water until there is 2-3 inches of water on top (I like to make sure the salt pork is cut into ~1 inch cubes and well mixed in). Cover the pot with a lid; cover with a well-soaked cloth (to protect from soil) and lower into the bean hole. Cover with coals, bury, and wait 12-16 hours. Dig 'em up. Enjoy.

ADDENDUM: The estimable dannye tells me that "the real key is to mash about 1/4 of them up when they're close to being done. That gives the soupy flavor that they need." This I had not known.

Note that you can cook massive quantities of these things if you've got a big enough pot. The hole size increase to handle the pot will mean you'll have more coals. The cooking times should be roughly equivalent, but I'd take the 12-hour time and add 30 mins for each pound of beans over 2.

(IN 5 30/30)

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