A perfect place to start a discussion about Victorian menus at the end of the 19th century in Boston, Mass., is with baked beans and brown bread.
Boston earned its nickname “Beantown” for the wide consumption of baked beans by its residents. The Puritan sabbath lasted from sundown on Saturday until sundown on Sunday, and this time was reserved for quiet piety and refrained from any exertion, including cooking. Baked beans provided an easy-to-prepare dish for the Puritans. The bean pot could be kept in the slow heat of a fireplace on Saturday evening that could be served for dinner on Saturday and for Sunday morning breakfast.
According to the “American Heritage Cookbook,” there were also “free-lance” bean bakers who would relieve housewives and busy cooks of this weekly tradition. “The baker called each Saturday morning to pick up the family’s bean pot and take it to a community oven, usually in the cellar of a nearby tavern. The free-lance baker then returned the baked beans, with a bit of brown bread, on Saturday evening or Sunday morning.”
The Triangular Trade of the 1700s helped to make Boston an exporter of rum, of which molasses is an ingredient used in the distillation process. At that time, molasses was added to local baked bean recipes, creating Boston Baked Beans. John Adams once said, apparently in reference to the Molasses Act passed by the British Parliament in 1733: “Molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.” (“American Heritage Cookbook”).
The following list of ingredients for Boston Baked Beans are from the “American Heritage Cookbook,” which quotes its instructions from the Fannie Farmer’s “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.” The Indian cake, or bannock is from “The American Frugal Housewife.” You’ll notice in these old recipes that amounts and temperature are left largely vague, as the cookbooks assumed the cook already had a working knowledge of basic dishes. Also, coal or wood fueled ovens varied greatly in their temperature. Often a hand test was used to determine a hot oven – essentially the cook would hold her hand inside the oven and depending on how many seconds she was able to keep it in there before it felt too hot, she would know the cooking speed of her oven.
Mary Baker Eddy‘s cook at her Pleasant View Home, Minnie Weygandt kept careful notes of the menus served there in order to avoid repetition. Minnie noted that baked beans were Eddy’s “favorite Sunday dish, cooked with salt pork and sugar, but no molasses.”
Mary Baker Eddy Library researcher Taryn McNichol took up the challenge of soaking the navy beans and making a big pot of Boston Baked Beans. She cooked them for over 12 hours! “It took so much time and energy,” says Taryn. But thankfully, using her slowcooker meant she didn’t have to babysit the beans. Even so, Taryn says it took her a couple of days to figure out and make the Boston Baked Beans recipes, leaving her no other time to cook regular meals!
Boston Baked Beans
6 cups pea or navy beans
1 pound salt pork
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup molasses
1 small onion (optional)
Pick over beans, cover with cold water, and soak overnight. In the morning, drain cover with fresh water, bring to a boil very slowly, then simmer until the skins, “which is best determined,” wrote Fannie Farmer “by taking a few beans on the tip of the spoon and blowing on them, when the skins will burst if sufficiently cooked.” Miss Farmer adds that beans tested this way “must, of course, be thrown away.” Drain beans. Scald the salt pork, which should be well streaked with lean, by letting it stand in boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut off two thin slices, one to place in bottom of pot, the other to be cut into bits. Score rind of the remaining piece with a sharp knife. Mix dry mustard, salt, black pepper, and molasses. Alternated the layers of beans in the pot with the molasses mixture and the bit of pork. If you use an onion, bury it in the middle. When the bean pot is full, push the large piece of pork down into the beans with the rind sticking up. Add boiling water to cover, put the lid on, and bake all day (a minmum of 6 to 8 hours) in a 250 degree F. oven. Check from time to time and add boiling water if needed. Uncover pot during last hour of baking so the rind can brown and crisp. To this day many old-timers believe the rich brown goodness of Boston Baked Beans is largely due to the earthenware bean pot, with its narrow throat and big bulging sides. Lacking one of these pots, you can use any earthenware casserole that has a cover. Serves 10 to 12.
Indian cake or bannock
From “The American frugal housewife: dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy“
Indian cake or bannock is a sweet and cheap food. One quart of sifted meal, two great spoonfuls of molasses, two teaspoonfuls of salt, a bit of shortening half as big as a hen’s egg, stirred together; make it pretty moist with scalding water, put it into a well-greased pan, smooth over the surface with a spoon, and bake it brown on both sides before a quick fire. A little stewed pumpkin, scalded with the meal, improves the cake. Bannock split and dipped in butter makes very nice toast.
Related post: A month of Victorian recipes