The Ur-Baked Bean
A Culinary Etymology of the Baked Bean.
An Overly-long and Digressive Discourse on the Origins of the Bean on Toast and its Political Implications for Modern Geo-Politics.
The Family Tree of the Fart.
Nb There is a recipe in the middle of one of the digressions, if you look hard enough. Just trim off the pseudo-literary psycho-political fat…
There is a profound political discussion to be had at the heart of this recipe: One could ponder the question of baked bean history in terms of British Cultural Identity [sic]. I mean, given its national status you’d think it’d fired up the soldiers at the Battle of Hastings, or that Henry V had noshed a platter-full before delivering his inspirational spin-speech kindly provided by one W. Shakespeare, before going on to skewer les Frogs at Agincourt.
Surely the humble Baked Bean is as British as they come, testimony to our greatness in all things small?
But not so my fine friends.
The Baked Bean has altogether more – dare I say it? – foreign origins that have little to do with the green and pleasant land which Blake, displaying a not un-British lack of geographical comprehension (later to become “Bah humbug the whole map’s pink anyway!”) confused with the peaceful hills of Jersualem… No, I don’t know how he managed that either.
I’m quite enjoying this style of hearty rhetoric, so I say once again, that, my dear friends no! The Baked Bean is not a native of our gently perfumed shores (more of which perfuming effect later).
No, it seems we must swallow any hats we may have eaten and look to our American GI friends. In WW2 they arrived at the same conclusion that countless peoples have since expressed: British food is simply not what those frogs annoyingly still hopping about with their legs intact after Agincourt would call gourmet cuisine. Let us also consider that it must have been even less so during the glory years of rationing, although I so think it’s most unfair that Brussel sprouts still bear the war stigma and are now also made to pay for more modern anti-European clap trap. The GIs, rightly or wrongly sniffy of the British fodder on offer, brought their food over the Atlantic in tins… Tins of spam (the thought of which makes my stomach turn thanks to a run-in with a shark many years ago, which was followed by a lunch of glisteningly pink, fleshy spam); custard; stockings (not tinned); Chocolate (90% cockroach, Flo reliably informed me)…. etc etc.
And among the delicacies that kept the brave boys from Oklahoma, New Jersey, California, South Bend and other mythical places hearty was the Tin of Baked Beans.
Now, in my overactive little mind’s I spy the pale, moustachio-ed British soldier, who, realising that having plums in one’s mouth doesn’t unfortunately fill the belly, watch the bronzed, be-muscled, slick-haired GI scoff his tins of spam and beans, visibly grow a few inches more, whisk a pair of silk stocking out, and promptly rob Norman or Neville of his current squeeze. While historians have been quick to blame the silk stocking effect for these amorous defections, I disagree. I venture the hypothesis of spam and beans.
But I digress. This is not an excuse to twitter on about the special trans-Atlantic relationship that installed itself post WW2 between this sceptred isle and the land of the GI Joes / Josés. (Note, important name here). Of course, given the intimate relationship between toast and baked beans, and the significance of toast-making as an important task of the fag in the Public School fagging system, the predominance of Public School twits in British politics, and the similar subservience to be found in both the fagging system and the Special Relationship, given, as I say, the almost sacred place in which the gastronomic apogee Beans on Toast is given in British culture, it is hard for me to wrench myself from this political exposée.
But I must, as there is an altogether more rational exploration into the Origin of the Baked Bean with which I can bore my best beloved readers (a phrase which Kipling did to death in his books and which awoke in me a deep desire to do him to death).
And indeed this exploration into the yore of the Bean, into the Ur-era prefiguring the Age of Tin, takes us, ironically perhaps, to the New World, back across the Atlantic.
And the cinematographic angle, which I shall flog like John Wayne flogged the coach horses sprinting across the Nevada desert as yet another hapless blonde lost her bonnet and yet another hapless Indian lost his life, this cinematographic aspect, I say, is intrinsic to our understanding of the origins of the Baked Bean.
Which brings me back to GI Joe and his great grandfather José in Sacramento, or some other southern western bit of that vast country.
If you watch the staple films of the Western genre (which I love love love, to my great chagrin given that it is a genre which expounds pretty much every political ideology I grind my teeth over at night) you’ll see that there are three types of men:
1) The Indians (who never have names, they just look consistently blood-thirsty, as though they’re about to roast a settler baby).
2) The Manuel/ Diego / Josés of this cowboy world – shifty-eyed, invariably picking their noses with a knife, and always looking for a way to do John Wayne down even though they’re meant to be on the same side.
3) John Wayne and his blue-eyed friends, who are of course the goodies. Why they are never shown as the sun-burnt and red-nosed pickles they would inevitably have been after a lifetime’s hard riding across someone else’s prarie-land, I don’t know. A problem with make-up.
(In a short note I would add that there are also only two types of women in these films – the prostitute who scrubs John Wayne’s back in the bath-tub, and the lady who loses her bonnet. There might be someone else lurking unseen in the kitchen, but given that she is not involved in the cooking of this particular recipe, we can safely forget about her, as I’m sure movie history already has done).
Anyway, it is among this list of male character types that we look for those involved in the history the Ur-Baked Bean… Unfortunately in my quest for the source of the Ur-Baked Bean I shall have to do as history often does and leave the Indians to one side, for this is not their campfire story. No, by a curious twist this is José’s story, it is his recipe of beans (porotos), which are of course the staple of South and central American cuisine.
So I shall let José tell you how to make the porotos granados which are the abuelas of the Baked Bean.
“Porrotos granados are easy to cook in any tin, over a fire, under the starry sky with a horse snorting in your face and a rifle under your poto.
For modern consumption I will adapt:
1) Soak the beans in water.
2) The next day fry an onion with some garlic and lots of fresh basil.
3) Throw in some tomatoes, maybe 7, and let it simmer.
4) Throw in the soaked beans.
5) Throw in some chopped up pumpkin bits.
7) Simmer some more.
8) When the pumpkin is soft take it out and whizz it to make a purée, then put back into the sauce.
9) Throw in some sweet corn.
10) Hubble bubble it on low heat (or campfire), until the beans are cooked – maybe about 1 hour.”
This is how José recommends cooking it. As you can see, like any good cowboy, he doesn’t say much, preferring to chew a stalk of grass. If the recipe is enigmatic or confusing, again, apologies, but that’s how cowboys are. I couldn’t get much more out of him.
So, journeying northwards from Mexico, the bean and it’s tomatoey sauce thus find their way into the cooking pots of the Josés of the cowboy world as they sit down to sup with the John Wayne who will inevitably put a bullet through him before the film is finished… Moments after shooting him John will regret it as he’s a terrible cook and can only half-remember José’s recipe. The sweet corn and the basil will be early victims to his forgetfulness… The onion may possibly escape censure, the garlic probably not… So what do we end up with in the Baked Bean as we know it? Nothing but the beans simmered in tomato….
But just as most Westerns are cracking stories, this is a corker of a recipe. It will put fire in your belly and fire up your bicycle. The Chileans eat it in the summer, but this is a sweaty affair, and is best left to those of the other hemisphere. I would recommend it as a winter warmer. Simmer it, then slurp it as you mull over the strange ways of the world: The Indians defending their land and the Mexican / black / Indian cowboys erased from Hollywood’s cowboy colour-code; horses stomping in the night by a prairie campfire; the slings and arrows of fortune that are little Blighty’s lot, Hal and his archers at Agincourt, the arrival of José’s great-grandson as GI Joe with his tins and stockings…
And where are those tins travelling to now? Do the metaphorical stockings hold any charm and open any doors where Joe / José finds himself now? And somehow I find myself back in politics. Fie fie! Miriam, you are neither a back-scrubbing lady of the night, nor a serial bonnet-loser, so get back into the kitchen…
P.S This recipe and its accompanying thesis does not contain wikipedia. Academic facts have been subordinated to wild speculation.
Another disclosure – this is Miriam moonlighting as Flo – I simply can’t figure out to blog under my own name so I’m sullying Flo’s good name instead. Sorry Flea…
 Full disclosure: Am myself such a twit but have yet to subject British Politics to my inanities.