Baked Beans and Culture

Check out this folksy Victorian-era tale from Eugene Field about one man's fondness for baked beans.

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by C.E. Brock, from the book
“SARY SAT DOWN BY THE BED, AN’ FED THEM BEANS INTO BILL.”

Writer’s note: When I was a kid, Mom often put a big pot of baked beans in the oven of her coal range before we went to church on Sunday morning and that was our Sunday dinner when we got home. I’ve loved pork and beans ever since and often still eat them.

In 1909, Charles Scribner’s Sons published a selection of short stories in a book titled “THE HUMOUR OF AMERICA” which included this piece by Eugene Field (1850-1895), a poet and humorist who write a humor column for the Chicago Daily News in which he often unfavorably compared Boston with Chicago. – Sam Moore

 The members of the Boston Commercial Club are charming gentlemen. They are now the guests of the Chicago Commercial Club, and are being shown every attention that our market affords. They are a fine-looking lot, well-dressed and well-mannered, with just enough whiskers to be impressive without being imposing.

Last night five or six of these Boston merchants sat around the lobby of the hotel, and discussed matters and things. “This is a darned likely village,” said Seth Adams last evening. “Everybody is rushin’ ’round an’ doin’ business as if his life depended on it. Should think they’d git all tuckered out ‘fore night, but I’ll be darned if there ain’t just as many folks on the street after nightfall as afore. We’re stoppin’ at the Palmer tavern; an’ my chamber is up so all-fired high, that I can count all the meetin’-house steeples from the winder.”

Pretty soon they got to talking about beans: this was the subject which they dwelt on with evident pleasure.

“Waal, sir,” said Ephraim Taft, a wholesale dealer in maple-sugar and flavoured lozenges, “you kin talk ’bout your new-fashioned dishes an’ high-falutin’ vittles; but, when you come right down to it, there ain’t no better eatin’ than a dish o’ baked pork ‘n’ beans.”

“That’s so, b’ gosh!” chorused the others.

“The truth o’ the matter is,” continued Mr. Taft, “that beans is good for everybody, — ‘t don’t make no difference whether he’s well or sick. Why, I’ve known a thousand folks –waal, mebbe not quite a thousand; but, — waal, now, jest to show, take the case of Bill Holbrook: you remember Bill, don’t ye?”

“Bill Holbrook?” said Mr. Ezra Eastman; “why, of course I do! Used to live down to Brimfield, next to the Moses Howard farm.”

“That’s the man,” resumed Mr. Taft. “Waal, Bill fell sick, — kinder moped round, tired like, for a week or two, an’ then tuck to his bed. His folks sent for Dock Smith, — ol’ Dock Smith that used to carry round a pair o’ leather saddlebags, — gosh, they don’t have no sech doctors nowadays! Waal, the dock, he come; an’ he looked at Bill’s tongue, an’ felt uv his pulse, an’ said that Bill had typhus fever. Ol’ Dock Smith was a very careful, conserv’tive man, an’ he never said nothin’ unless he knowed he was right.

“Bill began to git wuss, an’ he kep’ a-gittin’ wuss every day. One mornin’ ol’ Dock Smith sez, ‘Look a-here, Bill, I guess you’re a goner: as I figger it, you can’t hol’ out till nightfall.’

“Bill’s mother insisted on a consultation bein’ held; so ol’ Dock Smith sent over for young Dock Brainerd. I calc’late that, next to ol’ Dock Smith, young Dock Brainerd was the smartest doctor that ever lived.

“Waal, pretty soon along come Dock Brainerd; an’ he an’ Dock Smith went all over Bill, an’ looked at his tongue, an’ felt uv his pulse, an’ told him it was a gone case, an’ that he had got to die.

“Wall, Bill he lay there in the front room a-pantin’ an’ a-gaspin’, an’ a wond’rin’ whether it wuz true. As he wuz thinkin’, up comes the girl to git a clean tablecloth out of the clothes-press, an’ she left the door ajar as she come in. Bill he gave a sniff, an’ his eyes grew more natural like: he gathered together all the strength he had, and he raised himself up on one elbow, and sniffed again.

“‘Sary,’ says he, ‘wot’s that a-cookin’?’

“‘Beans,’ says she; ‘beans for dinner.’

“‘Sary,’ says the dyin’ man, ‘I must hev a plate uv them beans!’

“‘Sakes alive, Mr. Holbrook!’ says she; ‘if you wuz to eat any o’ them beans, it’d kill ye!’

“‘If I’ve got to die,’ says he, ‘I’m goin’ to die happy: fetch me a plate uv them beans.’

“Wall, Sary she pikes off to the doctors.

“‘Look a-here,’ says she; ‘Mr. Holbrook smelt the beans cookin’, an’ he says he’s got to have a plate uv ’em. Now, what shall I do about it?’

“‘Waal, doctor,’ says Dock Smith, ‘what do you think ’bout it?’

“‘He’s got to die anyhow,’ says Dock Brainerd; ‘an’ I don’t suppose the beans’ll make any diff’rence.’

“‘That’s the way I figger it,’ says Dock Smith; ‘in all my practice I never knew of beans hurtin’ anybody.’

“So Sary went down to the kitchen, an’ brought up a plateful of hot baked beans. Dock Smith raised Bill up in bed, an’ Dock Brainerd put a piller under the small of Bill’s back. Then Sary sat down by the bed, an’ fed them beans into Bill until Bill couldn’t hold any more.

“‘How air you feelin’ now?’ asked Dock Smith.

“Bill didn’t say nuthin’: he jest smiled sort uv peaceful like, an’ closed his eyes.

“‘The end hez come,’ said Dock Brainerd sof’ly; ‘Bill is dyin’.’

“Then Bill murmured kind o’ far-away like (as if he was dreamin’), ‘I ain’t dyin’: I’m dead an’ in heaven.’

“Next mornin’ Bill got out uv bed, an’ done a big day’s work on the farm, an’ he hain’t hed a sick spell since. Them beans cured him! I tell you, sir, that beans is good fer what ails ye!”

Happy New Year, Sam Moore

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