It’s Bean time in Tennessee. While I love old fashioned soup beans, my favorite are slow baked Boston beans. I made it last month and took them to Guilford Courthouse, baking the beans in my bean pot in the oven before I left. This month at the muster, I’m doing it again. Most traditional recipes call for Navy beans (Navy beans obtained their name from their history, rather than their color . In the early 20th century, the United States Navy used these beans as a staple, and the beans now reflect that history in their name) but I like a combination of Navy beans and cranberry beans.

Baked beans have been popular in North America since before the Pilgrims landed on the eastern shores. Although many people think of Boston as the birthplace of the recipe, according to the National Restaurant Association, the Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroquois Indians created the first baked bean recipes.

The critical ingredient, maple syrup, was discovered by the Iroquois. According to legend, a chief threw his tomahawk into a maple tree one winter evening. When he removed his weapon the next morning, sap began to flow. He tasted it and noticed a sweet taste, so he had his meat boiled in it that evening for dinner. When the sap was boiled the full, sweet maple taste was released. From then on Native Americans in the East set up “sugar camps” in the winter. The sap was collected in gourds, hollowed out logs, or clay pots. Then, according to the Montshire Museum of Science, the sap was boiled by dropping red-hot rocks into the containers.


According to the Food Reference Website, Native Americans later created baked bean recipes that featured maple syrup and bear fat. The beans were cooked in earthenware pots that were placed in pits and covered with hot rocks. Scholars believe the Pilgrims learned how to make baked beans from the Native Americans, although they began substituting molasses and pork fat for the maple syrup and bear fat. This dish was perfect for the Pilgrim household. Pilgrim women were not allowed to cook on Sunday, because of their religious beliefs, and the baked beans could be cooked the night before and kept warm until the next morning.

During colonial days, Boston became famous for baked beans, hence the Boston Baked Beans that we’ve all heard of, and the reason that Boston received the nickname of “Beantown.” Boston Online, said that the city was virtually drowning in molasses, and the locals had to find a solution.

Boston was involved in what was called triangular trade: Caribbean slaves grew sugar cane, the sugar cane was sent to Boston and made into rum, the rum was sent to West Africa to buy more slaves to send to the Caribbean to work in the sugar cane fields. So if the molasses weren’t being used for rum, it was being used to make baked beans. Today, there isn’t a single company in Boston that makes baked beans, and only a few places in the city still serve them. A piece of history seems to have been all but lost in Boston.

Here’s the recipe:

1 lb dry navy beans or 1/2 lb navy beans, 1/2 lbs cranberry beans

1/3 cup brown sugar ( I used Splenda brown sugar to cut down the sugar content)

1/2 cup molasses (because we have diabetic members, I limited the molasses to a little over 1/4 molasses)

1 tsp dry mustard or 2 tbs  dijon mustard

1 medium onion, chopped

 salt pork cubes or slices, 2 medium sized smoked ham hocks, country ham pieces and bone or bacon: you choose.

Optional for heat: pod of dried hot pepper and my secret: BOCK BEER OR GUINNESS STOUT replacing half the water. Make sure the beer is flat when you use it.

Soak beans overnight in a medium sized kettle, using about 2 quarts of water.

Simmer for 1 hour. Drain, reserving liquid.

Pour beans into bean pot or another casserole dish with a cover. Measure 2 cups of the reserved liquid, adding water if needed. Mix with brown sugar, molasses, and mustard. Add to bean pot, combine with beans and onion. Add the ham or salt pork.

Cover and bake in oven at 300 degrees, 5 to 7 hours. Stir frequently, adding water or reserved liquid as needed. Do not allow the beans to become dry.

Enjoy the wonderful aroma filling your house, and for a warming traditional supper, serve with ham slices and brown bread.