BLUE HILL — When John Tyler and his wife, Betty, used to live in the Penobscot County town of Enfield, there was a young man who regularly made bean hole beans at the general store in West Enfield.
“It was such a good meal,” John said.
The Tylers now live in Blue Hill, where they operate Blue Hill Blondes, raising a type of cattle called Blonde D’Aquitane that originated in France.
They also are members of Halcyon Grange No. 345 in Blue Hill. When talk turned to fundraising options for the Grange several years ago, Tyler thought back to the bean hole bean meals in Enfield.
“I suggested it at the Grange meeting and people said, ‘Sure, let’s try it,’” he said.
Bean hole beans, for those not acquainted with them, have a history dating back to before the arrival of Europeans in North America.
Native Americans first made bean hole beans by “baking beans with bear grease in maple syrup in clay pots covered with deerskins and buried in coals in the ground,” according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association website.
The advantage to the long, slow cooking process is that the beans are very digestible and tender when finished.
The University of Maine’s Folklife Center said lumbermen who worked in the state’s north woods adapted the process by putting the beans in cast iron pots and burying those in the ground surrounded by coals.
Ernest Kennedy, recounting his days spent working in logging camps, listed fish, beef and potatoes as among the items that figured in meals there.
“And beans, always had beans on the table every meal,” he said, in a transcript of an interview posted on the Folklife Center’s website.
Bean hole beans don’t show up that often in Blue Hill, but when they do the process starts at the Grange hall. Rather than dig a new hole each time bean hole beans are made, Grange members have created a permanent bean hole on the lawn next to the hall.
The hole is about 5 feet deep and lined with rocks and pieces of brick or concrete blocks. On top is a concrete wagon wheel laid flush with the ground, and the hole is covered with a sheet of metal.
“It’s nice,” Tyler said. “We can use that hole again and again.”
A fire is started several days in advance, and it has to be tended to on a regular basis. Wood is added and a base of coals builds up. It can take quite a bit of wood to get the necessary amount of coals — Tyler said at least half a pickup truck full of wood was used for one recent round of beans.
A day or two later, the bean process begins at the Tyler farm.
John begins by soaking the beans overnight — 10 to 20 pounds, depending on how big a crowd is expected at the Grange. He uses Jacob’s cattle beans, one of the heirloom Colonial varieties most often used for baked beans (other popular choices are yellow eye and soldier beans).
After the overnight soaking, the beans simmer on low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, or “until the skins are coming off,” Tyler said.
He then pours them into a large stockpot, which already has onions and salt pork on the bottom of it. Other ingredients are added once the beans have been poured on: mustard, ground black pepper, a little bit of salt and then brown sugar. A final ingredient is added at the very end: butter.
“Everything can use a little butter on it,” Tyler said.
The bean pot is then taken to the Grange hall. The metal sheet is taken off the top of the bean hole, and enough coals are shoveled into a metal trash can to make room for the pot. That is dropped in, and the coals are then put back around it and the sheet put back in place.
The coals provide some heat to cook the beans, while more is released from the stones, bricks and concrete blocks that have absorbed heat over the previous couple of days.
A day later, the process is reversed: the metal sheet is taken off, coals and ashes are shoveled out and the pot is pulled out. Chains with hooks on the end are attached to a wooden bar, and the hooks are dropped into the hole and catch the handles of the pot. The bar is then lifted up and the pot comes out of the ground, then is carried by a team of two over to the hall.
It is set on a metal grate on a porch just outside the community kitchen in the back end of the hall.
On its website, Halcyon Grange said the kitchen allows for a broad range of use by community members, “from individuals who need space and equipment to process and preserve food for the winter months to groups who wish to host or attend a variety of educational workshops and social events.”
The kitchen, fully equipped with commercial equipment, stands at the back end of the more-than-century-old Grange hall — an example of how the organization is looking to sustain an old tradition into the 21st century.
Another example of that are a couple of silos that stand just a short distance away from the hall. Tyler said the Grange buys organic grain in bulk, then sells it to local farmers. That provides a savings to the farmers, as compared to if they bought the grain on their own, and allows the Grange to play an important role in the community.
Hosting a baked bean supper is also an important role, giving neighbors a chance to socialize and catch up, while other diners meet for the first time and get to know their community a bit better. And everyone gets a good meal out of the deal.
Leapin’ legumes — what does that mean?
The Maine Folklife Center has a list of bean-related expressions and what they mean, a list that is posted on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association website. Here are a half-dozen:
• “Full of beans” — in good form or condition; as full of health, spirits or capacity as a horse after a good feed of beans
• “Give a bean” — to chastise or berate
• “To be like beans” — to be in good style, a general phrase of praise
• “Not worth a bean” — to hold in low esteem; to be of little value
• “Beany” — to be in good humor
• “To know beans” — to be well-informed; to be sharp or shrewd