Down East 2013 ©
Photo by Herb Swanson
I had lost control of my kitchen crew, so to speak. This did not bode well for my foray into a Maine food tradition, my first-ever bean hole dinner. But before we could cook one bean we had to dig a hole in my friend Hannah’s unruly backyard, and how big a hole was in debate. My husband, Scott, and our friend Herb grabbed the shovels before I could and then dug madly, like two young boys with dreams of hidden treasure. Silent, heads down, sweat beading on their middle-aged brows, they scooped out shovelful after shovelful of sandy, soft earth despite my warnings.
“It’s getting too big,” I, the cook, called. My mother standing next to me nodded in agreement as we gazed upon the ever-expanding crater.
This wasn’t my only problem. I still had no idea how we would bake the biscuits around an open fire. I had the barest of instructions on how to prepare the beans. As I considered the pile of wood we were going to burn, I realized I hadn’t brought an oven mitt, not one potholder. But I was bending the tradition in so many ways, blisters, unbaked biscuits, and a pool-sized hole probably wouldn’t matter.
Lobster bakes get all the culinary glory in Maine, but far from the coast, deep in the state’s dark, dense woods, I found another food tradition just as emblematic of the state — the bean hole supper. Though the name prompts some to snigger, bean holes remind us that Maine is far more than its tattered coastline and cold waters, that a deep forest blankets much of the state and its timber has fired the state’s economy and shaped communities and families for going on generations. A bean hole supper, a simple, smoky, visceral meal passed down from the lumber camps of yore, reminds us why we are called the Pine Tree State and not the Lobster State.
What makes a bean hole a bean hole is this: You dig a hole in the ground, burn down a pile of wood in it, then drop a pot of beans into the coals, and cover the whole mess with the dirt. You leave the pot in this subterranean, makeshift oven until the beans are cooked. Maine’s American Indians made bean holes, too, and may have taught the early settlers this skill. If so, it seems only lumbermen ran with it. Bean holes made for an inexpensive and convenient meal in the camps and on river drives. The cook could head down river, make a bean hole, and wait for the lumberjacks, who would be too famished from a day balancing atop logs and far too grateful for a hot meal to utter, “What, beans again?”
Like lobster bakes, bean holes were meals born of efficiency and economy that in this day and age have become events. Unlike lobster bakes, bean holes are rare. You pretty much have to go to timber country to find one. But they’ve grown ever so slightly in recent years. Now Greenville has one, as does a random church here and there. For years, though, the only annual bean hole supper could be found in Patten, where the Lumbermen’s Museum has held one the second Saturday of August since 1962. That’s where I ate my first one about ten years ago.
I’d gone to Patten for a story on the painter Carl Sprinchorn. A Sprinchorn collector, a man who shouted all his sentences at close range, bellowed at me to go to the bean hole dinner, and go early because it would be crowded. Only in Maine, I thought, would people line up for beans.
He was right. Long before I thought it a reasonable hour for lunch, a crowd milled on the lawn behind the museum’s simple log building. I quickly lined up for beans. From there, I watched teams of men carefully ply the earth, digging down less than a foot. From these shallow holes they plucked large, steaming pots that shed bits of dirt and coal.
Supper unearthed, the line surged forward as plates of beans, red hot dogs, coleslaw, and biscuits were passed to greedy hands. My husband and I, our appetites primed by the smoke, the smell of baking biscuits and brewing coffee, stood within sight of the fire and dug into the beans first, which turned out to be rich and earthy, the way good barbecue is.
Each summer I thought about making a pilgrimage back to Patten. I always had visitors, or the beach called. Finally, I realized the only way I was going to have a bean hole dinner again was if I made it. I decided not to shoot for anything 100 percent authentic. How could I? I was taking a meal born of the deep woods and recreating it in the suburbs. My invited friends would arrive in flip-flops, toting bottles of chardonnay, maybe even merlot. I, a lone female cook, would take on a meal made for male bonding. I would keep the tradition alive by giving it my own personal stamp. I knew purists wouldn’t approve, but I wanted my very own bean hole dinner.
To start, I quickly rule out my small city yard on Portland’s East End. My neighbors would not appreciate a robust fire in the middle of our tightly nestled clapboard houses. So I ask my pal Hannah Holmes if I can borrow her double-deep yard in South Portland. Yes, she says, even after I explain about the hole. This is the very yard she wrote about in her book Suburban Safari. So my bean hole will have some literary pedigree, which seems wrong and right at the same time, as so much of this endeavor would.
The trimmings — the coleslaw, biscuits, molasses cookies, gingerbread, and certainly the red hot dogs — are a no-brainer. But I need advice on the beans and the hole, so a week before my event I dial the experts, the bean holers up in Patten. To their credit, none scoff at my suburban version, though their advice is so simple it’s cryptic, like words from an oracle.
I call Don Shorey, a retired forester who’s been working on the volunteer crew for thirty years or so. He learned bean holing from men who had been on river drives. I ask him what beans I should get. He uses yellow eyes, but says it really doesn’t matter what kind I use. Should I burn hardwood or softwood? Either, he says. They cut theirs from the woods behind the museum. How much water, molasses, dry mustard, and salt pork should I add to the beans, I ask. “Depends on the size of the pot,” he answers. He adds bean holes “are pretty foolproof as long as whoever puts the beans in has a little bit of experience.”
I ring Leroy Giles, whose uncles and father worked on the bean hole before him. I ask him how much wood I’ll need. He answers a “pretty good bunch.” He does give me some specifics, including that it should take five to six hours to make a pot for my fifteen guests. He reassures me by saying, “If you’ve cooked beans in the oven it’s the same as cooking them in the hole.” But he undermines my newfound confidence when he tells me to get some “old-style truck rims,” and stack them two or three high in the hole so it doesn’t cave in.
When I ask my husband where I can get old-style truck rims, he rightly convinces me that I don’t need the rims, but what I do need is a reflector oven for the biscuits. Giles says L.L. Bean sells them, so I check the outdoor gear empire’s Web site, then call. All they have are solar camp ovens. Over the next few days, solar, for the first time in my life, becomes a bad word.
I call REI and the Kittery Trading Post, among others. All they have are solar ovens. On the Web I find a promising site, only to download a six-page PDF on how to build a solar oven. I e-mail a friend in Utah, a Dutch oven cook-off champ. She sends me to a Web site that explains how to build solar ovens. I call Giles back. Make one, he says. The Lumbermen’s Museum e-mails photos of their ovens just a few days shy of my bean hole. They are gleaming and square and made of metal. I show Hannah, a Mainer, a picture to make it clear how hopeless that is. “Oh, I can make one of those with stuff in my basement,” she says.
Now I stand by the ever-expanding hole hoping for the best. At last Herb and Scott set down their shovels, and we toss firewood I bought at the supermarket (so wrong, so right) into the three-foot-square gape and set the stack ablaze on this hot August morning. While the fire flashes against the summer sky, my mother and I head into Hannah’s kitchen to make the cookies, gingerbread, and slaw. My seventy-five-year-old mom, visiting from Cincinnati, adds her own touch to the bean hole by mixing up Mrs. Robin’s coleslaw, a recipe from my aunt’s cleaning woman. That done, we dump five pounds of yellow eyes into a lobster pot, each grab a handle, and lug it to the fire to parboil. Hannah emerges from her basement holding some aluminum-clad contraption high in one hand like a trophy. It’s her reflector oven.
By one o’clock, the fire gives way to chalky white coals. It’s time to bury the beans. Scott digs out half the coals. Looking at the hole, the pot, and amount of coals, it’s now obvious to everyone that it’s too big. We all stare at the hole, thinking. Suddenly Herb grabs some large flat rocks and slips them along the sides, thus shrinking it. That done, we ease the pot in. Scott shovels coals around it. He tops the pot with a layer of earth and we stamp that down, sealing steaming fissures with our footprints. As we turn to leave, the smell of beans cooking wafts from the earth.
Five hours later, the soot from the first fire rinsed off, we wearily return to build the second, this one for the coffee, hot dogs and, most importantly, the biscuits. About the time the first guests wander into the backyard toting bottles of wine and bug spray, the fire is plenty hot. I place a pan full of biscuits onto the wire rack in Hannah’s oven. She gingerly sets it close to the flames. We gather around, some of us clutching glasses of chardonnay, stare at the biscuits, and debate whether the oven is too close, too far away. A good five minutes into this conversation someone exclaims, “They are browning!” The biscuits are noticeably rising, which makes us stare at them all the more.
By 7 p.m. the party has assembled, including five dogs. I pull my eyes from the now-baked biscuits because the moment has arrived. With everyone lined up on one side, as if to see a show, Scott and I gingerly uncover the bean hole with trowels. None of my guests has ever been to a bean hole, but you’d think otherwise, given all the directives they shout. “Be careful!” “Dig deeper!” “Go slower!” I hear a less confident voice in the back of the mob say, “I’m confused.”
I am, too, because now that we’ve unearthed the top of the pot, I have no idea how to lift it out. There’s something about a bean hole that taps people’s ingenuity and, finally, my moment arrives. I grab a hammer, hook the claw into the dirt and snag the pot handle, for which I’m hailed as a genius. Scott does the same, and we pull out the pot like some long forgotten, dirt-encrusted time capsule. We dust it off as best we can, but when I lift the top with some dramatic flair for the crowd a few grainy bits of soil tumble into the pot.
“The dirt will make it taste better,” someone calls.
I stare down into the beans, and thank God I bought extra hot dogs. All I see is black. “Aaah, they’re burned,” I moan. The crowd groans. Herb jumps forward and pokes them with a spoon. Underneath the crust, the beans are reddish brown and creamy.
We lug the pot over to a table Hannah has put together with sawhorses and scrap lumber. Everyone sprays on bug juice, then pulls up a chair. The biscuits are gone in a flash. The beans are as good as I remember from Patten: dense, chewy, and smoky. Everyone agrees, but I realize by their surprised, almost relieved, tone that they really expected the opposite. The only naysayer is seven-year-old Will, who declares he won’t “eat anything that’s from a hole.”
As the night deepens, we eat on. The night proves starless and in the black the houses around us recede. The silhouette of an occasional bat streams overhead. Soft thuds sound from the dark as apples drop from Hannah’s few trees. The feast finished, we pull our chairs up to the fire and sip boiled coffee, which even surprises me with its richness (I confess I used French roast), and swap scary stories while the three kids ignite marshmallows. I guess this ultimately strikes my guests as less of a new twist on a Maine tradition, of us honoring the past, and more as just another one of my zany ideas that somehow worked out. Still, I know fundamentally what we’ve done, and I quietly raise my coffee cup to the Maine woods.