I grew up in England on Heinz baked beans. Seriously. My mother fed us fish fingers and baked beans so often that my dad ended up asking for something different. My son has also grown up on them, thankfully in combination with a more varied diet – and this underscores his British heritage, as it is not something his friends eat much at all.
Apparently a continuous diet of baked beans may not be the worst thing you could have – in 2002 the British Dietetic Association allowed manufacturers of canned baked beans to advertise the product as contributing to the recommended five daily allowance of vegetables per person. According to an odd video from 1986 called Baked Bean Junkie Gross-out, it might even present possibilities as a cure for drug addiction:
Either way, this dish is the Kraft dinner of starving UK artists, students and squatters. And are a significant ingredient in the Great British Breakfast! But baked beans did not originate in the UK. It seems they may have been popularized in the US – New England and Boston (otherwise known as Beantown) in particular – based on either European (the Italians love their beans!) or Native American cuisine. As there are few 19th century US cookbooks, this question remains open – comments welcome!
Baked beans have made their way into pop culture via songs such as the Who’s song “Heinz Baked Beans” on the 1967 album The Who Sell Out. The bean can may also have had particular significance for Warhol, although he did not portray it, preferring Campbell’s soup for his canned goods art. According to Siena Miller, who interviewed his mother for her screen portrayal of Edie Sedgwick, “She used to feed him baked beans and, in every cupboard, there were rows and rows of beans. I think that inspired him. He got inspiration from a lot of the mundane.”
Most commercial canned baked beans are made from haricot beans, also known as navy beans – a variety of Phaseolus vulgaris – in a sauce. In the UK it’s tomato; in the US, Boston baked beans use a sauce made from pork and molasses. Maine and Quebec-style beans often use maple syrup. In Montreal they are known as “les beans”, pronounced “bin” and there are cafes dedicated to them.
But there are substantial differences between the Heinz baked beans sold in the UK and the nearest equivalent US product. The US beans contain brown sugar where the British beans do not, and contains a total of 14g of sugar per can compared to 7g for the British version. The US beans are also mushier and darker in colour than their UK counterpart.
Heinz Beans were first sold in the UK in the upmarket Fortnum & Mason store in London as an exotic import at a high price. Their 1960s advertisement campaign used the slogan “Beanz Meanz Heinz.” It speaks to the power of advertising that the jingle is still stuck in my head, 40 years later!
For me, serving baked beans involves heating a can of beans (preferably Heinz), and pouring them over well-buttered toast, then sprinkling them liberally with grated cheddar. But if you want to make your own before serving, here’s how – this recipe makes the US version (I don’t think there’s a recipe for the UK beans – no-one there has ever wanted to eat them any other way than out of the can!):
1 lb. dried Navy or small white beans
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onions, sliced
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 bay leaf
3/4 lb. slab bacon or lean salt pork
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. dry English mustard
2 tbsp. brown sugar
Wash 1 pound dried white (Navy or pea) beans. Pick over and remove any stones or debris. Bring to a boil and boil rapidly for 2 minutes. Turn off heat and let beans soak for 1 hour. Alternatively, simply soak the beans in cold water overnight (no need to boil).
Add to saucepan, minced garlic, sliced onion, cayenne, bay leaf, and the slab of bacon or salt pork (in one piece).
Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until beans are almost tender.
Remove bacon, drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups liquid. To the liquid add molasses and ketchup, salt, Worcestershire, black pepper, dry mustard (and if you like onion, add an extra onion, minced, or 1/2 tsp. onion powder).
Put beans into a 2-quart casserole or bean pot. Pour liquid mixture over the beans. Cut the bacon or salt pork into strips 1/4-inch thick and arrange over the beans. Sprinkle the bacon and beans with 2 tbsp. brown sugar.
Bake, uncovered, in a preheated 400F oven for 1 1/4 hours.
Serve with steamed kielbasa or smoked sausage and ketchup on the side.