I was sitting on the back porch at Margaret Noddle's home on Wellesley Park, a few blocks northeast of Codman Square. It's a lovely neighborhood combining the charm of the Back Bay with the wood framed construction of Dorchester's older, pricier homes that haven't been converted to apartments or condominiums. We were sipping sangria and noshing on antipasto when Mrs. Noddle asked me if I had tried Dorchester Baked Beans yet.
"I've had Boston Baked Beans candy," I said, "And I've had baked beans for breakfast at McKenna's. Is that what you mean?" Mrs. Noddle said, no. She meant beans baked the Dorchester way. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"My grandmother passed down a recipe for making baked beans that is very similar to the bean crocks you'll find all over the Dot. My recipe may be unique to my family but you'll find similar variations all up and down this street. Dorchester has a particular way of treating beans for supper that is very different from the way you'll find them in the rest of Boston." I asked her to share here secret. She did.
"You start with two cans of beans," she started. I interjected, "Canned? Not dried?" Mrs. Noddle frowned at this early interruption, "My grandmother said she soaked dry beans when she was younger but canned is just as good." I interjected again: "What kind of beans?" Mrs. Noddle furrowed her brow and shook her head to signal that I should stop interrupting. She said, "It doesn't really matter what kind of beans as long as they're soft. They can be kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, whatever. Once they're done cooking they all taste the same."
Rearranging her skirts around her legs and refilling her sangria glass, she continued. "You simmer two cans of beans until their about ready to fall apart along with a large diced onion and a generous pour of molasses. With canned beans you don't need to add salt but you should add some black pepper. It doesn't matter how much molasses you use, this recipe is based on the traditional Boston model so they can't be too sweet. Like most things, more is better. The next ingredients will level the field."
She took a sip of sangria. The sun was setting over the roof lines on the west side of the street. "When you put the canned beans and their juice in the pot with the onion and molasses you need to add two jiggers of whiskey. Four Roses Bourbon will do. You don't want to use good sipping whiskey but cooking whiskey. This makes for soupy beans I'm afraid and my grandmother knew how to deal with that. She always added oatmeal to the mixture to make sure that the meal would be hearty. Just enough oatmeal to soak up the juice as everything simmers."
Mrs. Noddle sipped from her glass again. "Just around the two hour mark," she continued, "My grandmother would add what she called spring onions. That is, she picked some of the onion grass that grew in our lawn. I use scallions from the supermarket myself but lawn onion is more traditional. She also used to add some shredded cabbage when I was younger but after I was twelve or thirteen she substituted cabbage with shredded collard greens which had been showing up at the green grocers. I still use collards because I think they add a bit more earthiness than cabbage does."
I stopped the recipe at this point. "Do you mean to say," I asked, "That this is a dish of beans and oatmeal and collards?" She assured me it was, as well as whiskey, molasses and onion. "That must be a fine how-do-you-do come daybreak," I remarked.
Another sip of sangria and another stern look accompanied Mrs. Noddle's response. "My grandmother always said regularity is the key to a long life. She lived to be 77. My mother subscribed to that and she lived to be 86. I subscribe to it too. Why do you think I look so young? I attribute it to clean living with plenty of fiber in my diet as well as frequent moisturizing." I conceded that Mrs. Noddle doesn't look a day over 58 years old even though I know she is 63.
She blushed and accepted the complement. Then she continued. "You put the greens in about a half hour before you're done cooking it's a two or three hour process. The greens have to be as soft and mushy as the oatmeal when you're done. A bowl of these beans will stick to your ribs and get you from sun up to sun down. I had a dish for breakfast this morning and that's why I can sip sangria with you and just nibble at fruit slices and ham slices and a few crackers on the porch and not think one whit about having dinner tonight. I'm not the least bit hungry." She said this obviously pleased as she patted her trim midriff under her blouse.
"Would like to have breakfast with me tomorrow, Mr. King?" Mrs. Noddle asked, "I have plenty of Dorchseter Beans left over for another meal." I replied that my next engagement was at Peggy O'Neils where I was meeting some entrepreneurs to go over a business plan that should last well after midnight so I wouldn't be able to breakfast at the early hour Mrs. Noddle is accustomed to on Saturdays. "Another time, perhaps," she said. We agreed.