Friday, March 7, 2014
By Ken Allen
Many years ago on a dark Saturday evening in late November, a stiff northwest wind made primeval sounds, whistling through pines, soughing under eaves and rattling a storm door. Indoors felt good to a 7-year-old.
My mother called me to supper and details of that feast stick in my mind – like a favorite Christmas morning from childhood. My grandmother sat at the table with my father, still in his deer-hunting clothes minus his red-and-black, plaid woolen coat and matching single-visor hat with tucked-under ear flaps. This, of course, was before hunter-orange had become law.
My mother was taking hot biscuits from the oven. A pot of piping-hot baked beans, venison platter and bowl of freshly made coleslaw with lots of grated onions and coarse-ground pepper were already on the table.
“It’s a poor man’s meal tonight,” she said cheerfully.
On Saturday nights in fall, we often ate a poor man’s meal – a repast I relished, even as a young kid. At the moment she uttered the words, I distinctly remember thinking how lucky poor people were to eat this dinner, a dinner that began with deer hunters in the family.
Beans and venison with hot biscuits, yeast rolls or cornbread and coleslaw still strike me as a gourmet choice worthy of china, linen napkins and steaming cups of tea or coffee.
After I grew up, a baked-bean recipe in an early 1800s Boston cookbook caught my eye. The cookbook contained the best Saturday-night bean recipe in memory – no offense to my mother and both grandmothers.
Two points helped make the beans firm but not mushy:
• Instead of parboiling the beans for softening before baking, the directions called for soaking the dry beans in water overnight. Also, the water must be changed two or three times to remove bubbles, the beginning of fermenting. (I never noticed the bubbles until reading the book.)
• The recipe specifies cooking 10 to 12 hours in a 250-degree oven. A hotter temperature shortens the time but can lead to mushy beans.
Incidentally, my mother and grandmother were expert at keeping a wood stove oven at 250 degrees, a perfect temperature for baking beans.
The ingredients are simple and basic for this ancient bean dish:
1 pound beans (navy beans please modern palates)
1 teaspoon (a little rounded) of dry mustard
1/4 cup molasses
1 teaspoon salt
1 small-to-medium onion, peeled
1/2- to 1-pound of salt pork (I like 1/2 pound)
4 cups of water, or enough to cover
When the bean-cooking liquid evaporates below the beans, add scalding hot water, but in the afternoon, allow juice to reduce below the beans in order to brown them well. After browning, keep the water level up.
Decades ago, folks pan-broiled venison steak with onions and finished them off by adding water and covering the skillet – a boring fricassee for cooking venison steaks well-done.
For the best flavor, I like venison a little shy of medium. Steaks should be room temperature, and then in a preheated pan, cook at medium-high and sear both sides and then turn heat to medium low. The cooking time from beginning to end for a 1/2- to 3/4-inch steak is nine minutes for rare (41/2 minutes per side), 12 minutes for medium and 16 minutes for well done. A 1- to 11/2-inch steak cooks 12 minutes for rare (six minutes per side), 20 minutes for medium and 25 minutes for well. Please do the math for thicker steaks.
Coleslaw recipes often include consistent ingredients, beginning with sliced cabbage, but regardless of whatever anyone chooses, I really like a grated onion added to the dish – and I mean a lot of grated onion.
If family hunters and gardeners supplied the venison and grew the beans (dried after harvest), cabbage and onions in a home garden, that hands-on food gathering elevates the feast.
“A poor man’s meal” goes back to a bygone era, but don’t think the name degrades it. Folks loved the combination. Also, in the Depression and prior to the 1930s in poor corners of the state, nightly poverty dinners often included boiled potatoes with fried salt pork, salt-pork gravy and home-canned stringed beans – the latter disgustingly plentiful in Maine gardens.
We all should spend at least part of our life involved in food-gathering by hunting, fishing, gardening or gathering wild food, or all four, which provides us with an understanding of the life force. And yes, of humility.
As Kahlil Gibran explained in “The Prophet:”
“... Since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its mother’s milk to quench your thirst, let it be an act of worship.”
I say amen to Gibran.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: