The holiday this past weekend got me thinking about classic summer dishes, and one of the most iconic American foods is baked beans. My grandfather used to claim that my grandmother had been up all night making the ubiquitous beans that always appeared at family picnics, but I later discovered that what she really did was open a can of beans, dump them in a baking dish with a few slices of bacon laid over the top and put them in the oven for an hour. I assumed she knew best and continued using canned beans for years, until I found out how easy it is to make baked beans from scratch. There is very little prep involved, the cooking is mostly unattended, and the flavors can be adjusted to suit individual tastes.
Traditionally, beans were baked throughout the day on Saturday and served for dinner that evening, then reheated again on Sunday for a simple, no-hassle meal. And even after most people gave up the traditional Sabbath abstinence from work, the Saturday night pot of beans remained a custom for many people, especially in New England. Although Boston gets credit for this dish, it does have a Southern influence. According to James Beard, the dish originally was sweetened with maple sugar or syrup, but this was eventually replaced with molasses. He notes that "beans flavored with rum were not unusual in the South, and the jump from rum to molasses is but a short one."