The Economist features the global story of the humble baked bean, saying many countries have a favoured bean stew. In Mexico frijoles borrachos are simmered with bacon and garlic and onions. Ewa riroare a speciality of the Yoruba part of Nigeria. In France a cassoulet may contain a rich variety of meats but it is at heart still a bowl of stewed beans. For the dish known specifically as baked beans, you must turn to America and Britain. They are two countries, divided by a common bean.
Before Ma Ingalls, in Little House on the Prairie, was baking her beans with salt pork, Native Americans were cooking them with deer or bear fat. They seem to have passed on their skills to early settlers. For the pious Pilgrims the dish was a boon. They weren’t allowed to cook on the Sabbath; a pot of beans, baked overnight, starting on a Saturday evening, solved the problem.
In America baked beans are now largely associated with New England – Boston is known as Beantown. The navy bean, a small white variety, is a popular choice for baking but soldier beans (named after the red splash on their skin which, if you squint, resembles a toy soldier), yellow-eye beans (favoured in Maine) and Jacob’s Cattle beans are plausible alternatives. The canned kind still include pork fat in the list of ingredients but a side of hot dogs makes up for the missing chunk of salt pork.
Somewhere along the way molasses became a traditional ingredient. In Britain baked beans are also navy beans (known there as haricot) but they are bathed in a tomato sauce. They are still sweet, but less so than the American version, and the pork has disappeared entirely. Most importantly they are Heinz.
Other brands are available. Other brands are cheaper. Some would venture to say that other brands are better. Britons remain unconvinced. Around 60% of the beans bought in British shops are made by Heinz, according to Kantar Worldpanel, a market-research firm.
Baked beans are now an unquestionable part of the British culinary canon despite, as Rachel Laudan, a food historian, points out, having no precedents there. She suggests that Britons’ enthusiastic adoption of this American dish may have its roots in their love for a category of meal which never makes it into recipe books: the “on-toast meal”. Baked beans, says Laudan, are a happy addition to scrambled eggs, cheese, sardines and mushrooms, all of which sit deliciously atop a slice of toast.