How beans built Canada
Our early ex orers lived on them, our railroads were built on them, our armies fight on them, our doctors swear by them We gobble ninety million pounds of them out of the can every year
IF A PARLIAMENTARY committee ever convenes in Ottawa to select the national dish of Canada, its honorable members might do well to consult Monsieur Donat Perreault. As master chef of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, M. Perreault knows his way around a kitchen. His pheasant under glass is superb, his crepes suzette are a flaming wonder and his recipe for habitant pea soup, a legacy from his Quebec forebears, is a gourmet’s prize.
But chef Donat would nominate none of these exotica as the national plate. That distinction, he feels, belongs only to a food that has delighted and sustained Canadians from pioneer days, one whose rich aroma contains something of the flavor of Canada itself.
Perreault’s choice is, by no coincidence, the meal most Canadians eat most often—baked beans.
“Beans,” says he, “are everybody’s dish.”
To support this claim, chef Donat has all of our history and society to draw upon. For ever since the Indian squaws of Hochelaga put a bean stew before a visiting sailor named Jacques Cartier, in 1535, Canadians have been calling for more.
At Port Royal, the first white settlement on the Canadian mainland, Parisian noblemen in velvets and lace heaped golden plates high with fèves au lard—boiled pork and beans—and washed them down with wine. The voyageurs who explored the New World, the settlers who hacked out a civilization and the armies that fought for it— all made dried beans a staple of their diet. So did the lumberjacks, the trappers, farmers and fishermen who founded the nation’s first industries, and the railroad builders who blazed trails of steel from coast to coast. During the Klondike Gold Rush of ’97, the price of “Alaska strawberries”—raw beans—shot from a few cents a pound to a dollar fifty, chiefly because Dawson City merchants knew sourdoughs in the bush couldn’t get along without them.
Four centuries of immigration have added to the national menu such esoteric victuals as ravioli Neapolitan, pâté de foie gras and lobster chow mein, but Canadians have never lost their taste for the ubiquitous bean. Last year they spent more than twenty million dollars for canned baked beans alone. All told, they put away one and a half million bushels of dried beans—yellow-eyed beans, navy beans, soldier beans, red kidney beans and more—many of them seasoned with rum, molasses, tomato sauce, sherry, mustard, onions and/or garlic. Beans were served not only by ordinary housewives but by wealthy social leaders, for the current craze for casserole dishes has made them fashionable.
Probably no other dish appeared on such widely disparate tables. Baked Beans Canadian were sold in the Royal York’s elegant Imperial Room for $1.80 a helping and, a few blocks away, seven thousand tins of them were ladled out, for free, in the Scott Mission for down-andouters. They were served in steaming earthenware crocks to fishermen in Lunenburg, N.S., on Saturday nights; and on tin plates to uranium prospectors at Blind River, Ont., on almost any night. Bean suppers topped off sleigh rides in Quebec, curling bonspiels on the prairies and barn-raising bees in New Brunswick. Pork and beans nourished the Fox Patrol at Scout camp, convicts at Kingston Penitentiary and Sisters of Charity in their convents. In countless homes across the land last year, tardy husbands were told, “There’s a can of beans on the shelf. Help yourself.”
The reason why so many Canadians help themselves to beans so often is simply that they are a cheap meal, rib-stickingly nutritious and, if properly prepared, downright delicious. In some Newfoundland outports they are held to be a powerful love tonic, and there may be some truth in the superstition. An old Nova Scotian folk tale tells of an ugly woman who “grinned like a basket of chips and spake like a heifer.” But she baked the best beans for miles around, had eligible bachelors flocking to the door and married the pick of the lot.
For today’s woman, whatever her motives, no meal is simpler to prepare. In ten minutes any harried housewife or, for that matter, even a hungry male, can warm up a twenty-five-cent can of Mother Machree’s Yummy OvenBaked Beans that are, the TV commercials keep saying, “just like grandma used to make.”
But though Canadians annually eat about ninety million pounds of baked beans from cans, it is a striking tribute to the food in question that in this age of jiffy-everything a great many people still lavish a great deal of time on making beans just as grandma actually did.
Such a person is Dr. Bradley Pett, of Ottawa, who is head of the nutrition division of the federal Department of National Health and Welfare. When Dr. Pett bakes beans, which is often, he spends almost twenty-four hours at it, soaking white navy beans overnight, boiling them, then baking them slowly for eight or ten hours in a mixture of onion, molasses, mustard and salt pork until the bean pot is crusted with the color of old mahogany.
“You know it is time to eat,” he says, “when the aroma is so rich and tantalizing that the neighbors two blocks away start dropping in unexpectedly.”
Dr. Pett’s interest in beans is not wholly a matter of personal taste. As the federal government’s leading authority on the Canadian diet, he has also given them his professional endorsement. “Beans are the most nutritious of all vegetables,” he says. “They contain a higher percentage of protein than wheat or even meat. In short, they’re good for you.”
How beans built Canada
This being the case, it was strange that in the rations issued for an arctic indoctrination exercise in northern New Brunswick, several years ago, there were no beans at all. The army felt that, however nourishing, they would be too hard to cook on the trail in subzero weather and that, anyway, any soldier could survive for a week without them. Not so. One man—a major —took along his own bag of yelloweyed beans, boiled them in a tin hat and explained to his amazed C.O., “The Canadian Army has been traveling on beans for one hell of a long time. I’m not going to stop now.”
There are branches of the Leguminosae—the bean family—in many parts of the world. Most of those eaten in North America belong to a genus with the unappetizing name of Phaseolus vulgaris. They originated, so far as science knows, in pre-Incan Peru. There archaeologists have unearthed carbonized beans in ancient tombs, evidence that wealthy Peruvians tried to take their beans with them on the trip to the golden beyond.
From Peru wandering tribes carried beans northward and by Columbus’ time, at least four hundred years later, they were almost as important a crop as corn to the North American Indian. The first white men to behold what is now Canada—unless the Vikings can present a better case—were Breton fishermen who crossed the Atlantic from 1500 on to fish the teeming waters off Newfoundland. They built summer colonies on the island and harvested beans from its mean soil for the long trip home.
With Cartier’s voyage up the St. Lawrence, in 1535, began America’s age of exploration, when men from the Old World groped their way around the New World—to see, in a manner of speaking, what was cooking. One of the first was Sir Martin Frobisher, the Elizabethan sea dog. In 1576 he ventured into sub-arctic waters, searching for a northwest passage to the gold and spices of the east. What he found instead, in an Eskimo hut on the rim of Baffin Island, was “a Guinea bean of red color, the which doth usually grow in the hot countries whereby it appeareth they trade with nations that dwell far off, or are themselves great travelers.”
When French and English first came to North America they weren’t long in taking a leaf from Pocahontas’ cookbook. Made to order for long harsh winters, beans quickly became as great a favorite with white men as they were with the Indians. “On Sundays everyone dines, lunches and takes supper,” Nicolas Denys, the governor of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, wrote in 1633, “for on that day they have beans boiled with pork.”
Though the French were the first to put pork with their beans, it was the British colonists of New England, in the mid - eighteenth century, who evolved the succulent dish that lines supermarket shelves today. From its founding the town of Boston was the home of the Cabots and the Lodges, the bean and the cod. In pre-revolutionary days its creaking square-riggers built up a thriving trade with the West Indies, exchanging salt fish and timber for rum and molasses. The latter found its way into the bean pot, by way of added flavor.
Both before the War of Independence and after, thousands of New Englanders moved up into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, attracted thereto by the promise of free land. Not the least of the possessions they carried with them were mouth-watering recipes for “Boston baked beans”—beans cooked in a sweet sauce.
Then, as now, the dish was a Saturdav-night blue-plate special in the Maritimes. The tradition stemmed from New England’s puritanical past when, believing that work of any sort on Sunday was sinful, women cooked Sunday’s food on Saturday. But usually the fragrance of baking beans was too tempting to resist and they were eaten Saturday night. The habit became a custom.
The Saturday night special
Accordingly, on Friday night a housewife in the young garrison town of Halifax would put a quart of yelloweyed beans, the favorite Maritime variety, to soak overnight in cold water. Next morning she drained the beans, covered them with fresh water, brought the pot to a slow boil, then let it simmer for an hour or so. When the beans were tender, she drained them again and poured a cup of them into the bottom of an earthenware bean crock. Next she added a medium-sized onion, cut into quarters, and covered it with the rest of the beans. Half a pound of fat salt pork, cut into squares, was pushed down into the beans, with the pork rinds exposed at the top. Then she mixed half a cup of brown sugar with a third of molasses, added a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of dry mustard and poured the thick dark sauce over the beans. With the crock filled almost to the top with water, she left it, covered, in a brick bake oven for about seven hours and, uncovered, for another hour to brown and crisp the top. (Eight hours in an electric stove, set at about three hundred degrees, will produce the same effect.)
Served from the crock, with thick slices of steamed brown bread, the beans were eaten for supper on Saturday night and, if any were left, for Sunday breakfast. Most homes in the Maritimes, then as now, had baked beans on Saturday nights. A visiting English sea captain was once invited to dine at a home in Saint John, N.B., one Saturday. Sharp at 6 p.m. his host’s wife appeared in the parlor doorway. “For those who don’t like beans,” she said, “supper’s over.”
It was by cashing in on the popularity of bean suppers that many of Canada’s earliest churches and schools were paid for. Even today they help to finance peewee hockey leagues, IODE chapters, to build barns and to take the chill off Laurentian winter carnivals. A bean supper figured in one of the oddest events in the history oí arms. When war broke out between Canada and the United States, in 1812, the people of Calais, Maine, crossed the narrow St. Croix River to attend a meeting in a church in St. Stephen, N.B. There old neighbors voted to ignore the war. Their private pact, sealed with a bean supper in the church, was never broken. In fact, the next summer St. Stephen gave away all of its gunpowder to the j eople of Calais— to help them celebrate July the Fourth.
The chief factor in spreading the popularity of beans across Canada was its early lumbering industry. As itinerant loggers followed the big white pines west from New Brunswick’s St. John River valley into Quebec and Ontario, they took their taste for beans with them. To satisfy it, wherever they went, they dug a hole two feet deep in the ground and built a hardwood fire in it. When the pit was red with coals
an iron pot filled with beans, seasoned with pork scraps, mustard, molasses and large amounts of pepper, was lowered down and covered with more embers. Three hours later a heady fragrance filled the forest and the sound of hacking axes ceased.
If their beans were sometimes seasoned with ashes and earth from the pit, the loggers didn’t gripe. For it was meant to be strong food. In a book describing his life as a roving lumberjack in Canada ninety years ago, Joshua Fraeser wrote of “bean-hole” beans: “A person who is accustomed to
the ordinary dishes of domestic cooking must be cautious how he attacks it at first. If he takes too heavy an allowance, as he is tempted to do on account of its savoriness, he is likely to throw his stomach into convulsions.”
But for hard-working, hard-eating outdoorsmen it was invigorating fare. Some lumberjacks in the Ottawa Valley were reputed to stow away as many as seventy pounds of beans a month— the average Canadian today is content with nine pounds a year—and they wanted little else. They sang a song that went like this:
Who feeds usheans each blessed day? Johnny Ross and Jim McGee.
Who’ll feed us beans on judgment day?
Johnny Ross and Jim McGee. And when the judgment’s passed and we
Know just where we’re going to -be Who’ll eat beans for eternity? Johnny Ross and Jim McGee.
Not all Canadians wanted beans all of the time. When the steamship International set out from Georgetown, Man., in 1862, to navigate the Red River to Fort Garry for the first time, one of the passengers aboard was the wife of Alexander Dallas, the Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor and governor of Rupert’s Land. It was a hectic trip, but Mrs. Dallas bore up well. She kept her composure when the International’s steering gear broke down. She didn’t scream when its smokestacks fell off, or on the dozen occasions when it scraped aground. What finally reduced her to tears was the ship’s menu. “I can’t see,” she said to a clergyman passenger, “why the only alternative to pork and beans has to be beans and pork.”
So it was for the men who spanned Canada with railroad tracks and brought new provinces into Confederation. Beans were their staple food. One surveyor who worked on the Kicking Horse Pass in 1885 wrote of his camp boss. “Beans were our pièce de résistance three times a day,” he said. “He believed that a variety of food and too much of it was not conducive to physical or brain activity.”
When the cry of Gold! echoed through the Yukon, in 1896, touching off one of the most exciting periods in Canadian history, it was answered by thousands of men from all over the world, bankers and bums alike. Hungry for gold, they lived on beans. For, more than any other food, beans generated the bodily heat needed to stay alive in the frozen bush. The sourdough boiled his beans once a week and froze them in large slabs, which he carried along the Klondike trail. To eat, he simply broke off a chunk of beans and fried them in bacon grease. In the Yukon beans were synonymous with food. It was said of Father Judge, the saintly Jesuit of Dawson City who saved many luckless men from starvation, “He gave us the beans first, and prayed afterward.”
If beans are no longer the necessity they once were, they are still as much a favorite today as ever. The national intake of ninety million pounds of canned baked beans alone every year is more than any other canned vegetable except peas, a side dish that sells one hundred million pounds annually. Among canned foods that constitute a meal in themselves, the closest rivals to beans are spaghetti and macaroni, which have a yearly pack of only thirty million pounds.
Beans are the old culinary reliable, as suited to candle-lit after-theatre parties as they are to longshoremen’s picnics. Served piping hot from a crock or eaten cold from the can, they’re the stuff—quite literally—that memories are made of. Psychodieteticists—psychologists who study the effect of various foods upon the subconscious— have established that certain foods can become symbols to us, as a result of childhood or early experiences. Milk may represent the security of home and mother; reward may be associated with chocolate bars. When most Canadians think of beans, they remember campfires in the woods, sleigh rides and Saturday night. Our national psyche seems to hark back to the country’s childhood, when the bean pot was a mainstay, when it meant security and stability and warmth against the cold.
And so we eat beans. ^