When Tom Curren sets out to make his favorite recipe, a dish for which he’s famous in his area of central New Hampshire, he checks his equipment list first: one gigantic cast-iron kettle—20 gallons or so—with lid and C clamps; chains, ropes, pulleys; a roll of chicken wire; wire cutters; and a scythe or corn cutter. Then he needs “at least a three-person crew to help throughout the two-day process. Four to six folks can be kept busy. More than that is a distraction. Each crew member needs a spade, leather work gloves, and a slotted spoon.”
Beanhole beans, or beans-in-the-ground, are what he’s after: beans baked the way they were in the logging camps of the Great North Woods, where they had no ovens. For 22 years, Tom made beanhole beans for Old Home Days in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, under the tutelage of former beanmeister Sam Worthen. After Sam passed away, the mantle passed to Tom—Mr. Bean, as he’s known now in his hometown of Danbury, New Hampshire. He’s even made beanhole beans at the Smithsonian, but most often these days, he chooses a day for his annual beanfest and gets the word out: Beanhole party! “It’s theater,” Tom says. “It always draws a crowd. And who doesn’t like baked beans?” Of course, there’s a lot more than just beans, but beans are the draw.
Now he gathers his ingredients: 25 pounds of good dried beans (navy, yelloweye, soldier, trout, kidney, your choice and preference); 5 pounds of salt pork; a gallon of dark maple syrup; 12 onions, quartered; a half-cup of salt, a third-cup each of ground ginger and dry mustard; 3 tablespoons of black pepper; 2 tablespoons of dried thyme. Oh, wait, beer, he says, also an important ingredient: no fewer than one and not more than four cold bottles of local beer for each member of the bean crew: “You have to have it, but not too much, because you can get hurt. That big kettle swings a lot of heat.”
Tom and his crew rinse the beans and soak them in cold water overnight. When it’s time to dig the pit, crew members are advised on proper size and shape. First, they gather enough fist-size rocks to line the hole, as if lining a well. They start a fire in the hole, and tend it for hours till the rocks are hot and the bottom of the hole is deep with red embers. Then, once the beans are mixed in the kettle and the embers are hot, it’s time to lower the beans into the hole, which is why they need the chains and pulleys and all the rest. Once the beans go into the ground, he covers thems with ferns or hay to prevent burning, and then fills the dirt back over the top. “It’s like the space shuttle,” he says. “Once the beans are in the hole and covered, there’s no turning back.”
Tom, who works in land conservation, knows as much about this camp style of baking beans as anyone around. On his computer, he keeps old black-and-white images of the old-timers bringing the beans up out of the ground and ladling them out to hungry friends.
In the aftermath of his most recent beanhole dinner, most of the 60 or so guests were gone, and the monster pot was scraped clean. Keeping warm on the woodstove was a much smaller pot of what was left. Neighbors and Tom’s wife, Kathy, picked away at two huge carcasses, a ham and a turkey, left on the table. Kathy ladled out beans into containers for whoever wanted to take some home. Everyone went home with a little tower of beans and ham, maybe some pie (there were 20). Tom spoke about an elderly man in town who loves Tom’s beans. “He says they’re better than sex,” he added with a big laugh. “I mean, he’s on oxygen now, but he even used to say that to me when he was a young man: ‘Beans are better than sex.’ Imagine that!” The next day, Kathy made sure that the old man got a nice big container of Tom’s beanhole beans.