A family recipe is important, even if we don't remember all the parts, because each attempt at its re-creation keeps us connected to the people who helped shape us. It happens each time we do that intimate, life-sustaining cooking and eating thing, especially when we do it from a place of memory.
If there's one thing we Gilinghams can agree on, it's that Grandma Katie, my tall Irish namesake, made her Boston Baked Beans from Van Camp's canned Pork & Beans with ketchup, mustard and liquid smoke. When I reached out to relatives to ask about the details of Katie's beans, I realized there's a family dispute raging over whether or not there was canned chunk pineapple and sliced franks in the recipe, but I'm taking the position that there was; where else would all that character came from?
Mostly, I remember loving when she would come over with an armful of groceries and make me a pot of beans.
Not knowing I would some day become a food writer, Grandma Katie didn't write down her recipes for me. When she died I was too young to understand why I might one day want them, but I remember the flavors and the feeling I got when the house filled with the sweet and tangy aroma of this dish and I wanted to bring that feeling to my own home. So I recently tried reinventing them, replacing the canned beans with dried, and the hot dogs with thick slab bacon, but of course I kept the canned pineapple.
As I worked on the recipe this week, I smelled something I hadn't smelled for decades. Along with that earthen candy aroma, I could almost see my grandmother's tall lean frame, hear her sing-songy voice, feel her long tapered nails giving me a back scratch, and smell both her comforting powdery perfume and the cigarette smoke that would eventually take her away from us.
Cooking is a powerful trigger of memory. This is how we keep the ones we love alive. It doesn't really matter if you don't get the recipe right.
Baked Beans with Pineapple and BaconServes 8 to 10
1 pound (about 2 1/4 cups) dried navy beans or Great Northern Beans
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup crushed pineapple (canned in juice or fresh)
1 bunch green onions, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
8 thick slices smoked bacon
Rinse the beans and soak them in 6 cups of water overnight or at least 6 hours.*
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Add beans with their soaking liquid to the pot. Combine the brown sugar, molasses, mustard, and salt, and pour the mixture over the beans. Add the tomatoes, pineapple, and all but 1/2 cup of the green onions. Stir the pot to combine the ingredients. Lay the bacon strips across the top of the beans.
Cover the pot and bake about 5 hours, until the beans are tender but not falling apart and mushy. Uncover during the last 30 minutes of cooking to allow the bacon to crisp.
Serve in bowls topped with a few pinches of sliced green onion.
*Bean Soaking Shortcut: For shorter soaking time, put the beans in their pot, cover with 6 cups water, bring to a rapid boil and cook on high for 2 minutes. Remove from the pot from the heat, cover it, and let it stand 1 hour before adding the mustard mixture and following the above directions.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)