While Maria Baeza was growing up in Brooklyn, there were two constants in her life: beans and rice. Every night, her mother would cook up meat and some combination of the two – either mixed together or served separately. The latter was young Maria’s favorite, because, that way, she could just avoid the beans altogether. The mix involved a little more work.
“I would pick the beans out,” said Baeza, who now lives in Newburgh. “My plate always had this little pile of dried beans on the side. Now I eat beans and love it – love it.”
Baeza and her friend Maria Leyro, both of Puerto Rican descent, will share that love for beans during a demonstration on the Foodways stage at the National Folk Festival. Throughout the weekend, Maine cooks from diverse backgrounds will demonstrate the ways in which beans and other legumes are integral to their cuisine. In addition, a veteran bean baker will share a Maine logging camp tradition by burying three batches of bean-hole beans.
“I don’t know much about ’em – I just cook ’em,” said Jim Cunningham of Searsport, who learned the craft of baking bean-hole beans from a neighbor nearly 20 years ago.
It’s a long, slow process that has its roots in rural Maine logging camps. To start, Cunningham will soak beans overnight. In the morning, he’ll mix all the ingredients in a heavy pot. Then, he’ll start a fire in an 18-inch-deep pit, lined with a truck rim, and throw a boom chain on top. When the fire has turned to embers, he’ll take out the chain, wrap it around the bean pot and lower the pot into the pit. When everything is situated, he’ll cover the whole shebang with dirt and let the beans cook for eight hours. If you leave them in too long, the results can be disastrous.
“The water will disappear,” Cunningham said. “Then they get hard like a bullet.”
But if you do it right, cooking the beans underground gives them a flavor that their oven-baked counterparts can’t rival.
“The juices don’t cook out of the beans,” Cunningham explained. “It makes a better-tasting bean because you haven’t cooked all the flavor out of them.”
Though Cunningham uses yellow-eye beans, he insists the variety doesn’t matter. Each bean will give a different flavor, but all of them will be delicious, he says.
Still, Pauleena MacDougall of the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine says there’s a regional flavor when it comes to baked beans. In Washington County, cooks favor the marifax bean, which was introduced by the federal government during the Great Depression because it can tolerate the area’s tough growing conditions. In the Penobscot River valley, yellow-eye beans are a favorite, except in Brewer, where pea beans headline church suppers.
Most of the beans used throughout the United States were grown initially by American Indians, MacDougall explained, and European settlers incorporated them into their own recipes. In Maine, that meant bean-hole beans.
For the folk festival, MacDougall and her colleagues wanted to go beyond baked beans, however, so they recruited a group of Maine cooks to demonstrate the use of legumes in global culture. They found that the bean pot is a true melting pot.
“Here in this country we have all these enclaves of foods that combine Native American, Asian and European ingredients to make a truly American dish,” MacDougall said.
In northern Maine’s St. John River Valley, that dish is pea soup, or soupe aux pois. The yellow-eye peas used in the recipe aren’t native to the valley; in fact, they’ve never grown well there.
They were brought to the region by Acadian settlers, a group of French emigrants who initially landed in the Maritime Provinces and later fled to the banks of the St. John River, which marks the border between Maine and New Brunswick.
The region still embraces its Acadian heritage, and food is a big part of that.
Just ask Michael Corbin, who owns Cafe de la Place in Madawaska. Every Thursday, he cooks up a batch of pea soup, and it’s a hit with the regulars, many of whom grew up eating the same dishes as Corbin did.
“I just remember having it at home with my mom,” he said. “All the family are cooks. She got a lot of her recipes from her mother-in-law.”
There are many variations on the recipe – some people add rice, others add ham – but the recipe Corbin will demonstrate at the National Folk Festival is
pretty simple. “I just use strictly peas, because it’s a pea soup,” he said.
For Fatima Munson of Orono, chickpeas are the legume of choice. On the Foodways stage, she will show the audience how to make a vegetarian tagine, a variation on a traditional Moroccan stew that combines chickpeas with carrots, raisins, prunes, herbs and spices. The tagine may be one of the better-known dishes of Munson’s native country, but chickpeas serve as a base for a whole range of Moroccan dishes.
“It’s important because a lot of people don’t have enough money to buy meat every day,” Munson said. “Chickpeas are really inexpensive and they add … some kind of substance to the meal.”
They also blend well with a number of ingredients, whether you’re making a stew or a bowl of hummus.
“You have protein in the chickpeas and then you add other vegetables – tomatoes, onions, carrots – and then something to spice it up,” Munson said. “Anything that’s available to you, you just cook it and add it to the chickpeas and it’ll taste wonderful.”
When Baeza was a girl, the versatility of beans made them a staple at the dinner table.
“Rice and beans – that’s the joke – rice and beans, what else?” Baeza said, laughing. “That goes with anything. That was the most typical meal, rice, beans and a meat.”
On special occasions, her relatives would prepare Habichuelas Rosadas Guisadas, or stewed pink beans with tomato sauce, spices and sofrito, a pestolike puree of green and red pepper, garlic, onion and cilantro that serves as a base for stews. “It’s luscious,” Baeza said.
At the Folk Festival, the audience will get to see just how luscious it is as Baeza prepares this festive dish. She also has recruited her friend Maria Leyro of Newburgh to cook Arroz con Gandules, a dish that combines pigeon peas, rice, meat and spices.
“Pigeon peas – now that’s where people could really get creative,” Baeza said.
“That’s their signature. Someone would put pork in it or someone would put pork rind in it – that’s where people could put their own little touch. She always throws in something a little unique.”
Within the Latino community, Leyro is known for her Arroz con Gandules, much like Cunningham is known for his bean-hole beans or Munson is known for her tagine. Food has the power to bring people together, and at the Folk Festival, cooks of diverse backgrounds will come together to celebrate the humble bean.
“When I think about diversity, I’m often struck with the differences and in them the similarities,” said Baeza, who works as a counselor. “I look at all these cultures who use beans as part of their primary diet. We cook it so differently and we could get so smug and snobby about our own, but, yo – we’re all cooking beans.”