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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Hill o' Beans

Last week's cool fall temperatures coincided with our last CSA delivery. This was brimming over with eccentricly mottled and gnarly squashes, the last hearty potatoes, and a 7-inch pie pumpkin. It set our minds running on those comforting winter meals that bake for hours while the snow flies, or coming home to a crockpot full of squash curry or baked beans.

Oddly enough, the history of beans is the subject of a new book reviewed in yesterday's N.Y. Times. Here in Wisconsin, as elsewhere around the world, beans have a proud heritage.

The Ho-Chunk were growing beans near Lake Winnebago when Jonathan Carver passed through in 1766, perhaps in gardens like this one in Vinland Township, Winnebago County (which archaeologists say pre-dated white contact).

Augustin Grignon, whose family was among the first French settlers at Green Bay, recalled that in his childhood during the 1780s "there were white potatoes raised at the Bay in large quantities, and the fields and gardens furnished peas, beans, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, onions, and lettuce."

Later immigrants also brought along beans as a staple. In July of 1837 Lucius Fisher and a companion were grateful for the beans they were served as they walked from Milwaukee to Beloit: "We reached Oconomowoc that night, where we found two bachelors in a log shanty with a floor of bark and nothing to eat but dry beans, which they stewed for us and which we ate with a relish from a bark plate with a chip for a knife." Other prairie inhabitants were famished, too: "the mosquitoes were very large and hungry and feasted upon us that night," he continued; "we slept but little."

To 19th-century lumberjacks, beans were not just a staple but a delicacy, and were prepared in a remarkable way: "The beans were cooked in the famous 'bean hole' fashion," recalled logging camp foreman John Nelligan in 1929. "There are on sale in grocery stores today in cans what are called 'bean hole' beans but they bear no likeness to the delicious dish cooked in a cast iron kettle in the woods. This method of preparing the beans was rather troublesome but the result more than repaid one.

"A hole somewhat larger than the kettle used was dug in the ground and a good hardwood fire made in it. When the hole was well burnt-out and the sides and bottom extremely hot, the kettle containing the beans was placed on a layer of hardwood coals left in the bottom of the hole. Then live coals were piled all around the sides and on the top of the kettle, which was covered with a tight fitting lid. Everything was then covered with a layer of ashes to retain the heat and the beans were left thus all night. The coals remained red hot for hours and when the beans were taken out in the morning they were thoroughly cooked, and of a flavor which could never be counterfeited in a canning factory."

That's real earthenware cooking, and maybe was the genesis of the crockpot. Perhaps we'll give it a try this fall, out behind the garage.

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 14, 2007

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