FRANKLIN — A bag of beans is something of a marvel. What else costs so little but can raise so much money at community suppers?
That is, of course, if Franklin’s Dick Gardner, aka the Bean Man, has transformed the small legumes into his rich, slightly sweet, baked beans.
Gardner will make pots of his legendary of baked Marfax and yellow-eyed beans for most any group that asks.
Alas, Gardner will not share his recipe. Only one other person has it and that’s Teddy Giles, the unofficial queen of the Franklin Veterans Club. Giles isn’t spilling the beans about the recipe either.
At one point in time, Gardner was listed on the town of Franklin’s website as the official bean man, under the listings for other town officials, such as the selectmen.
Gardner, who hails from Bar Harbor originally, learned how to cook from his late mother, Maxine.
“My mother always let us kids help out in the kitchen,” he said. “She taught us from there. I took her recipe and modified her recipe to what I like and that’s the way I made my beans.”
He started baking beans for suppers when as a member of the Franklin Fire Department he got, as he says, too “old and dilapidated” to fight fires.
“Everybody liked my beans,” he said. So, Gardner made them for fire department suppers. Since then, he’s provided groups hosting benefit suppers with pots of his baked beans usually free of charge.
“It’s my donation, if they want to give me a little something for the stuff, it’s alright,” Gardner said. “I do it to help out.”
“I guess it’s an old thing that they’ve always had for years,” he said. “It’s a money-raiser. It’s been going on for as long as I can remember.”
One recent recipient of Gardner’s skill and goodwill was The Ark Animal Shelter in Cherryfield. Organizer Lea Lane of Franklin called on Gardner to provide baked beans for a benefit supper.
“When you say you’re serving Dick Gardner’s beans, people sit up and take notice,” said Lane. “I can’t describe them. They’re sweet but not too sweet. They’re always cooked perfectly. Not runny, not sticky, just excellent flavor.”
“I used to do beans for the VFW in Ellsworth,” he said. “My wife [Barbara] belongs to the auxiliary there. I used to bake 8 pounds of yellow eye and 8 pounds of navy beans. A lot of the guys at the VFW never knew my name, just the bean man.”
While Gardner won’t share his recipe, he was generous with advice for making a good pot of beans.
“I use brown sugar and molasses and dried mustard,” he said. “You have to use the dry mustard — not wet.”
To appease people who don’t like onions in their baked beans, Gardner uses onion but just puts a whole one in the pot to simmer.
“Some people like onion and some don’t,” he said. “It just gives them a different flavor.”
Gardner, 79, has begun replacing salt pork with olive oil and sea salt.
“I used to put salt pork in, but I know there’s a lot of people now, especially older people who aren’t supposed to have it,” he said. “The people that have had my beans forever can’t tell the difference.”
The retired heavy equipment operator and truck driver says it was getting hard to get good salt pork.
“So, I switched over to olive oil and sea salt and no one knows the difference,” Gardner said.
The best salt pork he’s found is at Friends & Family Market.
“It was a solid block,” he said. “I like to put a big chunk in there, if I put salt pork in.”
The salt pork that he’s tried from other grocery stores just doesn’t compare with the kind he can get at the grocery store in Ellsworth Falls.
“I go to Corinth and buy all my beans,” he said. “They’re the best beans — Megquier’s.”
Of course, location, location, location is a factor.
Depending on where you are in Maine, Gardner says, dictates the type of beans you’ll find at a local bean supper.
“I use pea beans and yellow eye or small white beans or navy beans,” Gardner said. “The yellow eye is a little bigger bean. It’s a little softer than a pea bean.”
But, if you go to a supper in Cherryfield or Downeast, they use Marfax beans, he explained.
Marfax are small, dark beans, perfect for baked beans and have been grown in New England for over a century, according to Maine Grains, a Skowhegan business that turned an old jail into a grist mill to produce organic and heritage grains.
Over on the Blue Hill Peninsula, you’re likely to be eating Jacob’s Cattle beans, which are a plump bean similar to a kidney bean but spotted like a Hereford cow.
“It’s the beans they were brought up with in different areas,” Gardner said.
He procures his dried beans from Megquier’s in Corinth, which he says are the best.
“I use a big roaster oven,” he said. “I can do up to 10 pounds of beans in one of those 18- to 20-quart roasters.”
He also has a kettle that will hold 6 pounds of beans.
When he makes a small batch, about 2 pounds, for him and his wife of 53 years, he’ll sometimes slow-cook them on his grill. “The slower the cook the better they are.”
“I have an elderly neighbor, she’s 93. Whenever I do beans I always make sure I’ve got an extra pound of beans for her. She likes yellow eyes.”
“I like doing it,” said Gardner. “As long as people like my beans.”
“I do a lot of cooking,” he said. “I make pies and I do cookies and cakes. I do all the cooking here at home.”
Sometimes, beans can even be for breakfast.
Retired chef Eileen Dunn of Ellsworth likes to slow cook a pot of baked beans in winter.
“I’m a chef,” said Dunn. “A pandemic winter had me messing around with beans. I grew up with baked beans on Saturday. Beans and brown bread. I use Jacob’s Cattle beans and I bought them at John Edwards [Market]. The trick is to cook them and soak them for a bit.”
“It’s a beautiful, cheap, warming kind of dinner,” she said. She uses a recipe from “The Joy of Cooking” for the beans and the brown bread.
Of course, beans also make a warm lunch on the boat.
Lobstermen will take along a jar of baked beans and keep them in the hot water tank until lunch time.
The origins of baked beans are debated.
Meg Muckenhoupt, who wrote “The Truth About Baked Beans, An Edible History of New England” (NYU Press), states in her introduction that the recipe for Boston Baked Beans was born from an effort to create New England foods.
“Storekeepers in Faneuil Hall and Duck Tour guides may tell you that the Pilgrims learned a recipe for beans with maple syrup and bear fat from Native Americans, but in fact, the recipe for Boston Baked Beans is the result of a conscious effort in the late 19th century to create New England foods,” Muckenhoupt wrote.
Another historian says the dish simply lasted through the ages from the Puritans who needed a dish they could cook on Saturday and eat on Sunday to prevent working on the Sabbath, which was and remain a sin for some.
Some food historians say Mainers have Native Americans, particularly the Penobscot and the Iroquois, to thank. Still others say the dish is an adaptation of the French cassoulet.