By Gabby Peyton
In a 1956 Maclean’s article, the head chef of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto proclaimed that baked beans should be Canada’s national dish. “Beans,” said Donat Perreault, “are everybody’s dish.” And those words still ring true today.
Baked beans are one of Canada’s truly national dishes — beginning with Indigenous iterations all the way up to its place on pulse trends of today’s Canada’s food guide. And while many ingredients are incredibly regional, the versatility and history of the humble bean spans from coast to coast. In Newfoundland, they are common with a big breakfast, using toutons to soak up those sweet savoury juices. In Nova Scotia, they are thick and sweet with molasses; in Quebec, they boil those beans with pork and maple syrup for the famous “fèves au lard,” while in British Columbia, gold rush renditions still appear on the dinner table.
The history of baked beans in Canada is long and wide.
One of the earliest Canadian dishes
Beans are filling, easy to transport and nutritious, so it’s no wonder they became a star dish over the centuries. And in Canada, baked beans were being devoured long before French and English settlers arrived. Indigenous peoples slow-baked beans in earthenware pots over hot stones with maple syrup and animal fat.
Once French and English settlers arrived in the 16th century, there seems to have been two recipes that branched off in different directions — one opting to use maple syrup and the other to use molasses.
In New England, it was Boston that made baked beans what they are today. The Bostonians loved baked beans so much there’s a whole realm of earthenware pottery devoted to their cookery and a sugar tax in the 18th century forced the popularization of molasses as a form of sweetener. As the Loyalists made their way up to the Maritimes into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia after the American War of Independence, so did their baked beans recipe.
The French version of baked beans dominant in the province of Quebec more than likely also stemmed from New England, although some are adamant that it is a Quebec version of the French cassoulet, another dish with slow-cooked beans as the star.
Regardless of the origins, the main difference in the histories of baked beans and “fèves au lard” which rose in popularity in the 19th century is that the Quebec recipes use maple syrup, an iconic and abundant ingredient in the region.
By the turn of the 20th century, baked beans were an important staple dish across the country, fueling those building the trans-Canadian railway and those searching for riches during the Klondike gold rush. In Dawson City, dried beans, called “Alaska Strawberries,” were as pricey as they were nutritious.
20th-century Baked Beans
Traditionally, many cooks across the country would put on a big pot of beans on the weekends. In order to not cook on Sunday, the day of rest, Maritime women would cook for Sunday on Saturday and would prepare a big pot of beans for Saturday supper, typically cooked in a big crockpot.
Into the 20th century, baked beans started appearing on grocery shelves as the canning process became safer and more widespread. They also started appearing on restaurant menus, especially in Montreal, where places like La Binerie (which opened in the 1930s) showcased Quebec’s baked beans as a star dish.
In the past ten years or so, the term pulse has become more commonplace in the Canadian culinary dictionary. Canada’s food guide shifted to include less meat and more pulses (the dried edible seeds of legumes), like beans, chickpeas and lentils. Canadians now spend on average almost $70 million a year on baked beans. They may have become trendier, but beans have been an integral part of Canadian cuisine for more than half a millennium.
Molasses Baked Beans Recipe
These classic baked beans have East Coast roots — the use of molasses versus maple syrup is a Maritime tradition stemming from New England, in particular Boston. They’re on the sweeter side, so those looking for a more savoury or tomatoey rendition will want to add 1 cup of ketchup.
Molasses Baked Beans Recipe
- Place the dried beans into a Dutch oven with 6 cups (1.5 L) of water. Soak overnight.
- Drain and pour beans back into the pot with enough water to cover the beans by a couple of inches, cook for 30 minutes until they are tender but still firm. Drain beans, making sure to reserve cooking liquid, set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 325 °F (160 °C). While the oven is preheating, cook pork over medium-high heat in the Dutch Oven until fat is rendered and pork is beginning to brown, then add the onion cooking until tender.
- Add the beans back to the pot, along with molasses, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard, salt and pepper and 3 cups (750 mL) of reserved bean water.
- Bake uncovered for 3 to 5 hours until the beans are tender, and the sauce has thickened, and the edges of the pot get sticky. (Note: if beans get dry, add another cup of water.)
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