I’m teaching a U.S. History and Culture course this fall, and needed to choose a theme. Of course after deliberating for about 3 minutes I chose food as a lens through which to examine social, political, and economic trends in American history. I have been rereading books such as Fast Food Nation and The Jungle as well as pouring over several new publications, and it’s already been a fascinating journey. For my fellow history nerds, pick up Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture (2013), an insightful look at, well, how America eats. What I’m trying to say is, your bold quest to understand where Boston Baked Beans originated can now cease. 🙂
Apparently both the Pilgrims and the Puritans had an initially tumultuous relationship with corn. Although a case could be made that corn is the sole reason they survived, the first colonists considered the grain barbaric and beneath their culinary standards. So, they ended up using corn in “English” recipes such as puddings, breads, and cakes. Try the following recipe for Indian Pudding, but only after grinding your own cornmeal and foraging for nuts and berries. No cheating!
Vegan Indian Pudding (adapted from saturdayschildblog.com)
- 2 cups soy or almond milk
- 1/4 cornmeal
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 t. cinnamon
- 1 t. ginger (optional)
- pinch nutmeg
- pinch salt
- 1/2 cup berries (blueberries, raspberries, etc.) (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans) (optional)
1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Stir with a whisk, bring to a boil and then simmer until thickened to about the consistency of peanut butter. Add berries and nuts, transfer to bake-safe dish and bake at 300 degrees for 60 minutes. Let cool for 25-30 minutes. Holy Paul Revere doesn’t this sound delicious?!
Native Americans taught early European settlers how to grow, harvest, store, and cook with corn. One of the easiest ways to use and transport corn was in the form of “Johnnycakes,” simple flat bread made from a base of cornmeal and water and often baked in communal ovens. The following jazzed-up Johnnycake recipe (which I’m planning to try very soon) is a combination of cornbread and rustic cornmeal pancakes I found on Post Punk Kitchen, one of my favorite vegan blogs:
Vegan Johnnycakes (from theppk.com) *gluten-free (which was all the rage during the colonial period!)
- 1 cup corn, fresh or frozen (thawed if frozen)
- 1 cup plain almond milk
- 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1. Place corn and almond milk in the food processor or blender, pulse just a few times to chop corn a bit. Add rest of ingredients, then blend until smoother – should still see chunks of corn. Let sit for a few minutes while you heat and oil a cast iron or other nonstick pan.
2. Cook said Johnnycakes for about 3-4 minutes on each side over medium heat, until browned on each side. Don Pilgrim hat and buckled shoes. Serve with warm maple syrup and fresh berries.
Beans — along with corn and squash — were essential to the early colonial diet. Unlike corn, colonists seemed to have no issue with Mr. Bean. And baked beans, everyone’s fave picnic side, have both European and American origins. The English had eaten a one-pot dish made from beans and bacon since the Middle Ages, and Indians also baked beans in clay pots tucked into earthen pits and covered with hot ashes. Early New England cooks kicked things up a notch when they integrated a new import, molasses, into their beans (along with onions) and created “Boston Baked Beans.”
Boston Baked Beans (sans meat)
- 3 cups pinto beans
- 1-2 sweet onions, diced
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- 1 T. ground mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1. Saute onions and garlic in olive oil. Add rest of ingredients, mixing in vinegar last, then place in baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for about 2 hours, checking to make sure they aren’t turning into Boston Brick Beans.
This is another one of those dishes you can really play around with, depending on how sweet, spicy, or tangy you like it. If you want less essence of tomato, swap out some of the tomato sauce for vegetable broth or water. And of course you can really go early American and make the beans from scratch, too, soaking them overnight, burying them in a clay pot, and serving up with some Johnnycakes and home-brewed ale.