My late friend Marie Rudisill was best known as The Fruitcake Lady, writer Truman Capote’s wise-cracking, straight-shooting aunt who handed out pithy, no-nonsense advice on The Tonight Show. It was a larger-than-life persona that overshadowed another side to this lovely woman, a side that she would have actually preferred that we remember—that of an accomplished cook, cookbook author, and tireless champion of real Southern cooking.
One of the things she regularly railed against was any cookbook purporting to be Southern that featured a recipe for “Boston Baked Beans.” How, Marie would grumble, could anybody call a book Southern when it was full of Yankee recipes like that?
What she didn’t acknowledge was that Boston’s famous beans were a true American classic, popular all over the country from Massachusetts to California—even down here in the South where “Yankee” is not a compliment. Slow-baked beans were, and still are, an economical and relatively carefree way to satisfy any hearty appetites that are honed by cold weather and hard work.
Each region has added touches of its own to baked beans. Down South, our version is enriched with tomato sauce and bacon. Long a part of our winter table, it’s also a popular side dish from roadside barbecue joints to church covered dish suppers all year round.
Most every cook adds a signature touch: a healthy dose of house-made barbecue sauce, a dash of hot sauce, chili powder, or garlic—sometimes even a splash of bourbon. Many cooks resort to canned beans, but the trouble with that shortcut is that canned beans disintegrate in slow-baking, so the baking time has to be considerably shortened and the seasonings must be ramped up to make up for the deep infusion of flavor that long, slow baking imparts.
Old Fashioned Baked Beans, Southern Style
This recipe dates back at least a century, but there is no need to leave it cast in historical stone. Feel free to add your own special touches and seasonings, making your own tradition.
Makes about 3 quarts, serving 12-to-14
2 pounds (4 cups) pea (white navy) beans, or red kidney, pintos, Great Northern, or a mixed bean assortment
2 large, or 3 medium onions, 1 trimmed, quartered and peeled, 2 trimmed, split, lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup unsulphured molasses
½ cup dark brown sugar
1½ cups of tomato sauce or catsup
1 teaspoon dry mustard, or more, to taste
1-2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ pound thick sliced bacon
Sort through the beans, discarding any that are discolored or damaged, and rinse them well. Put them in a large, stainless or enameled pot. Add a heavy sprinkle of salt to the beans and cover them by at least 2 inches with cold water. Put this over medium heat and bring the beans slowly to the boiling point. Turn off the heat and let them soak until doubled in bulk, about an hour.
If the water is no longer covering the beans, add enough to cover them by an inch and turn on the heat to medium. Add the quartered onion. Bring it slowly back to a boil, reduce the heat to a steady simmer, and cook until tender, about 1 hour, replenishing the liquid with simmering water if necessary (do not add cold or hot tap water). When almost tender, add a tablespoon of salt and simmer at least 10 minutes longer, or until completely tender. The old cooks would take up a small spoonful of beans and blow on them: when the skin blistered, they were ready. Remove and discard onion.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees F or prepare a 4-quart slow cooker.
Mix together the garlic, molasses, brown sugar, tomato sauce or catsup, mustard and Worcestershire in a small mixing bowl. When the beans are tender, drain them, reserving the cooking liquid, and mix them with the onions in a bean pot, covered casserole, or the crock of the slow cooker. Stir in the seasoning mixture and, if the bacon is not very salty, a pinch of salt. Add enough of the cooking liquid to fully cover them.
Cut the bacon in half crosswise. Press a couple of strips into the beans and then completely cover the top with the remainder.
Cover and bake slowly at least 5 hours (some cook them overnight, for as long as 8 to 10 hours), adding reserved cooking liquid if the beans get too dry, or cook 1 hour on high in the slow cooker, reduce to low, and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. For a crusty, browned top, uncover, and bake an hour longer or transfer from the slow cooker to a bake and serve casserole and bake at 350 for half an hour.