Pork and beans has been a classic staple as a culinary dish in its own right. The recipe for typical American pork and beans varies considerably, but generally consists of navy beans stewed with pork or rendered pork fat.
Although the time and place of the dish’s invention is unclear, it was well established in the American diet by the mid-19th century. The 1832 cookbook The American Frugal Housewife lists only three ingredients for this dish: a quart of beans, a pound of salt pork, and pepper.
Native Americans had been cultivating and using beans in their culinary traditions long before the arrival of European settlers along with maize and squash, using the Three Sisters method of farming. The beans, maize and squash were planted interdependently; the beans grew up the tall stalks of the maize, while the squash spread out at the base of the three plants and provided protection and support for the root systems.
Pigs first arrived in the Americas with the early settlers. They were tough and could survive the voyage with minimal care, they supplied an emergency food source if needed, and those that escaped provided meat for hunting on return trips. As the herds grew, explorers used the pigs not only for eating as fresh meat but for salt pork and preserved pork.
American Indians were reportedly so fond of the taste of pork, they were soon utilising and supplementing their diets with livestock adopted from Europeans with traditional Native American fare. Concurrently Native Americans introduced the first non-Native American settlers to many other vegetables still familiar on southern tables. Squash, pumpkin, many types of beans, tomatoes (though Europeans initially considered them poisonous), many types of peppers, and sassafras all came to the settlers via the native tribes.
Pork and beans has been considered a stereotypical cowboy food dish, as mentioned in the song The Old Chisholm Trail: ‘Oh, it’s bacon and beans most every day, I’d as soon be a-eatin’ prairie hay.’
Pork and Beans have traditionally been thought of as an integral part of American food culture, however the Quebecois nation, who wanted to separate to form Canada, believe it’s theirs. Never the less given its conflicting history of existence, it played an important role in the early Canadian and American war. Later on it was used by the US Army during the American Civil War.
During the 1860’s the Indianapolis grocery store of Gilbert and Hester Van Camp, who canned fruits and vegetables for their own shop, obtained a U.S. Army contract during the American Civil War to can and ship pork and beans to the troops. Their son, Frank, is credited with the development of Van Camp’s canned pork and beans recipe, by adding tomatoes from the family’s preserved vegetable business to the traditional salt pork-based sauce. He discovered that pork & beans tasted even better when served hot in tomato sauce. He began to advertise this notion, and an American store cupboard favourite was born.
Commercially canned pork and beans were introduced en mass in the United States during the 1880s, but did not become popular until H. J. Heinz produced their version in 1895. Nowadays pork and beans is as popular as ever, and is routinely purchased canned and reheated on a stove or in a microwave oven. Considered to be an American institution, there are multiple styles and numerous variations of this culinary classic.
In the New England region baked beans are flavoured either with maple syrup (Northern New England), or with molasses (Boston), and are traditionally cooked with salt pork in a beanpot in a brick oven for six to eight hours. In the absence of a brick oven, the beans were cooked in a beanpot nestled in a bed of embers placed near the outer edges of a hearth, about a foot away from the fire. Today, baked beans can be made in a slow cooker or in a modern oven using a traditional beanpot, Dutch oven, or casserole dish.
Boston baked beans use a sauce prepared with molasses and salt pork, the popularity of which has led to the city being nicknamed “Beantown”
In southern states and along the eastern seaboard of the US, the beans become tangier usually due to the addition of yellow mustard. For example the baked beans of Tennessee based Bush’s include mustard in most of their varieties of beans. Ground beef is also common alongside bacon in the home versions some of these bean styles. They may take on a flavour similar to Cowboy Beans; a home mixed stew, somewhat similar to a chilli but made instead with sweet baked beans.
Pressed Honey glazed Cajun pork belly with stewed red beans is my tribute to pork and beans which I first came across and learnt about whilst working in a Soul Food restaurant in London. The slow roast pork belly is deliciously tender which is offset with an incredible layer of crispy crackling.
Pressed Honey Glazed Cajun Pork Belly with Stewed Red Beans
Pork belly has been enjoying a revival in popularity over the last few years, with chefs and cooks, celebrating it in its many incarnations, whether it is salted, cured, roasted, seared, grilled or braised
Ingredients: Serves 4
1.5Kg Pork belly
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper for seasoning
1 Tsp Cajun seasoning
2 Heads of garlic, halved horizontally
4 – 5 sprigs of thyme
Corn oil (or rapeseed oil) to drizzle
175ml White wine
4Tbsp Blossom honey
175g pre-soaked (or tinned) red kidney beans
100g Rindless smoked streaky bacon, in one piece
1 Tbsp corn oil (or sunflower oil), if needed
1 Spanish onion, diced
1 Red bell pepper, diced
2 Sticks of celery diced
1 Red chilli de-seeded and finely chopped
2 – 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1Tbsp Oregano, thyme and hot smoked paprika
300ml Chicken stock
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper for seasoning
2 – 3 Tbsp chopped coriander
Snow pea shoots to garnish (optional)
1) Score the skin evenly in a criss-cross pattern with a sharp knife, taking care not to pierce through the fat. Turn the belly skin side down and season the meaty side by rubbing in salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning
2) Place the garlic, halved side up, on a lightly oiled roasting tray and scatter over the thyme sprigs. Lay the pork belly on top, fat side up. Trickle the top of the pork belly (fat-side) with a little oil and sprinkle with a little more sea salt. Add a generous splash of white wine around the pork, cover the meat with a piece of foil and bake for 1 ½ hours, in a pre-heated oven at 150°C
3) Remove the foil, baste the pork with the juices and return to the oven, uncovered, for another ½-1 hour until the meat is tender. Continue to baste the pork occasionally with the pan juices
4) Transfer the pork to a clean board and leave to cool slightly. While still warm, using a very sharp knife, carefully remove the top skin of the pork belly, trying to keep it intact and place it on a cooling rack (this is going to form the crackling)
5) Place the pork in a clean tray and place another tray on top of the pork and weigh down with a few heavy tins to flatten it. Cool completely, and then chill for 4 – 6 hours or overnight in the refrigerator to set its shape
6) In the meantime, increase the temperature of the oven to 200°C. Pat the skin dry with kitchen paper. Using a sharp pair of scissors cut the top skin into long wedges put the cooling rack with the crackling (pork skin) back in the oven for 5 – 10 minutes or until the skin is crispy and has puffed up
7) Pour off any excess oil from the roasting tray the pork was roasted in and place over high heat. Deglaze the tray with a generous splash of white wine, scraping the bottom and crushing the heads of garlic with a wooden spoon to release the sediment. Strain the meat juices through a fine sieve, pressing down on the garlic pulp with the back of a ladle. Reserve the meat juices in the refrigerator for the stewed red bean stew
Day 2, or 4-6 hours later…
8) Cut the bacon into 5mm dice, put into a pan and cook over a low heat until the fat begins to melt. Increase the heat a little and allow it to fry in its own fat until crisp and golden. Add the onion, celery and red peppers (and a little extra oil if it looks dry) and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft
9) Drain the beans and add them to the pan with the stock, tomato puree and meat juices. Simmer gently until the beans are just tender and the stock is well reduced. Add the coriander, adjust seasoning and keep warm. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C
10) Cut the pressed pork into four individual portions or squares. Place the pork squares, in a roasting tin and drizzle with a little oil and a generous pinch of sea salt. Roast for 15-20 minutes until it is heated through thoroughly. Remove from the oven and baste with the honey immediately – resting the pork for 5 minutes, turning and basting with the honey occasionally whilst it is resting
11) Warm the crackling in the oven for a minute or two, taking care not to burn it. Serve the pork on a bed of the stewed beans and steamed rice, garnish with pea shoots (if using) and warm crackling