Foodways Research: A Taste of Maine

The study of foodways enhances our understanding of how individuals sustain membership in ethnic and regional groups. The relationship between food and group assist in interpreting group identity. The foods that people eat are often used to describe “others” who eat differently from the mainstream group. Most ethnic and regional groups are most usefully defined internally, using the groups’ markers of self-identification. And it is clear that region and ethnicity are intertwined. In the United States, a region often exhibits a culinary hybridity. For example, in New England, Native American cuisine (corn, beans, squash) is blended with European cuisine (wheat) mostly from England but with touches of Africa (sugar cane, molasses). And as we move forward historically, other immigrant groups have added their traditional foods and spices to the mix.

The Maine Folklife Center embarked on a project to document Maine traditional foods. A delicious story unfolds, from the blueberry fields of Downeast and the fisheries of coastal Maine, to the potato fields of Aroostook County and the bean-hole beans of lumber camps. These food traditions have increasingly moved into community settings everywhere, including urban settings around the state, where established and newer immigrants are adapting their food traditions in ways that Mainers have been doing since Europeans first arrived and began eating, hunting, and farming alongside Native peoples.

Drawing on the wealth of foodways in the state, “A Taste of Maine” explores how the family story, community history, and significant events of national history are regularly expressed through food, and teach larger lessons about geography, history, art, and culture, as well as lessons regarding tradition and change.

Beginning with beans.

In the beginning, there were beans. Traditional Native American cuisine consisted of corn, beans and squash. These three foods play a vital role in defining modern American cuisine. We find grits, cornbread, and red beans and rice in the south, tortillas and pinto beans in the Southwest, baked beans and succotash in the Northeast, and pumpkin pie across the continent. English settlers in the northeast brought a culinary tradition with them that was then blended with local foods such as turkey, maple syrup, lobster, clams, cranberries, corn and beans to provide Indian pudding, Boston baked beans and brown bread, clam chowder and boiled lobster.

Maine Native people today still make a traditional bean and corn dish known as hull corn soup. Corn which has been soaked in ashes and water and had the skin removed is added to yellow-eye beans and sometimes bits of meat. Water is added and the mixture is cooked into a hearty soup. In years gone by, Natives also baked beans with maple syrup and bear fat in ceramic pots in the ground. Englanders adapted their own versions of the corn soup (succotash) and the baked beans.

Across New England, and certainly throughout Maine, a tradition of baked bean suppers takes place in community institutions such as churches, granges, and firehouses. The tradition of baked beans for Saturday night supper seems to have originated with the pilgrims, who would cook enough so that they would not have to cook on the Sabbath. The eating of beans extends to Sunday morning as well, and many Mainers speak of eating beans for Sunday morning breakfast. Today, bean suppers are often used as fundraisers. For example, the Caribou Lions Club holds three or four bean-hole bean suppers annually to raise money for their service organization.

While Boston is known as bean-town, only in Maine can you ever really get to know beans. B&M (Burnham and Morrill) baked beans of Portland still bakes beans in huge iron pots in brick ovens before they can them for distribution around the country. The Kennebec Bean Company in North Vassalboro packages a range of Maine-grown beans under the “State of Maine” label and also sells many of them prepared to an old Maine lumber camp formula. They cook varieties of beans only known in Maine. There are other, smaller canning companies who can traditional Maine beans as well.

Boston baked beans are usually made from the white navy or pea bean, a small, thin-skinned and fairly tasteless variety. However, in Maine there are numerous varieties that are local favorites. While yellow-eye beans are the most popular Maine bean, others are preferred in some areas of the state. Pauleena MacDougall recently interviewed bean grower Patricia Qua who provided substantial insight into Maine’s traditional beans.

There are little pockets [of people who want a certain type of bean]. I tried selling yellow-eye beans to a restaurant in Lewiston -a chain I sold to 4 other restaurants. In Lewiston they wanted the pea beans (Navy beans) the small white variety. I don’t grow those. I have a little sales route that goes down through NH, I noticed west of Fryeburg and North Conway they’re a lot more interested in Jacob’s Cattle. And Downeast, there is a small brown bean. Northeast of Ellsworth is a real center for Marifax beans. Something I heard was brought in during the depression. And yellow eyes, you almost can’t give them away there in that part of the state. They love the Marifax- I’m not sure they use any sweetener; they cook them with salt and pepper and salt pork. They cook them for a long time. Also, I noticed some years Soldier bean sales are higher and no one will buy Jacobs Cattle, now this year, Jacob’s Cattle are selling very well and I have no idea why.

PM: Do you sell any beans in Aroostook County?
PQ: People come down to get them.
PM: Do you notice any preference?
PQ: Yes, yellow eye.
PM: How about King of the Early?
PQ: Yes, they are kind of the same track as Marifax. Downeast.
PM: Do you sell to any of the Maritime Provinces?
PQ: I know people in New Brunswick who grow the yellow eye beans.
PM: And in northern Maine the yellow eyes?
PQ: Yes, and also the soldier beans.
PM: What about kidney beans, does anybody buy those?
PQ: Yes, people like to make chili. But the yellow eyes probably 75-80% of my sales, then Soldier Beans, Jacob Cattle and then the kidney beans.
PM: [pointing to some beans in her shop] Are these soy beans?
PQ: No, they are the sulfur beans, they are supposedly from the Brewer area, originally. They cook up like a yellow eye but a little bit sweet. [also called China yellow].
PM: Wow, you’re just a wealth of information about beans! (both laugh).
PQ: Oh, and the Bumblebee beans, these come from Garland, actually. A lady from Rowe’s orchard used to grow these. I think they are a local heirloom type bean. They swell up very large. All I can think of is the giant beanstalk…

There are umpteen varieties of yellow-eye beans -these are some I saved from a lot of different batches which have a lot of the molasses coloring-almost half the bean is gold. These took seven years to save out of my grading. A lot of the specialty shops like these because they are so colorful. Now there was a Maine yellow eye that has a very small eye. It has a lot more white. Most people now have gone to growing the Ken Early yellow eyes, which have a little more color with a week and a half shorter growing season, and they are shorter. It’s hard to harvest beans that grow high and fall over. But there is another bean they grow out in the mid-west which is Steuben yellow eye which is half white and half molasses color. They don’t have the same texture or they don’t taste the same to me. And I wonder if there is something in the soil that makes our Maine beans taste better. I’m not sure.


Yellow eye bean: The most popular baking bean in Maine comes in several strains including the Steuben, which is one of the oldest of heirloom beans. The Maine Yellow Eye Bean is the baked bean of choice for church and grange suppers, because of its clean, mild taste has wide appeal.

Soldier Bean: According to Patricia Qua, this is the second most popular bean in Maine. It is also an heirloom white kidney-shaped bean with a distinctive maroon marking on the eye that resembles an old-fashioned toy soldier. It is closest in flavor to the Maine yellow eye.

Jacob’s Cattle: A plump, pure white, kidney-shaped bean with vivid maroon splashes. It is full-flavored, holds its shape under long cooking, and stands up well to plenty of seasoning.

Marifax: A dense, chewy bean with plenty of flavor. Its origins are mysterious but tradition has it that it was introduced by the U.S. government during the Depression to help alleviate poverty. The only place the bean is eaten is in one tiny area along the Maine coast where the only viable crops are blueberries.

Sulphur or China Yellow Bean: A thin-skinned, nearly round Maine heirloom bean that has a tawny yellow color but cooks white and has a distinctly unique flavor.

Cooking Lore

While many people in Maine cook their beans in a ceramic bean pot, the most unique cooking process for beans in Maine developed in the Maine logging camps. Pork and beans, baked in a bean hole, remains the logger’s main dish. The slow, long cooking makes the bean very digestible as well as tender and delicious. In the logging camps, beans were served at every meal. The bean hole is a stone-lined pit in which a fire is built until a good bed of coals forms. A cast iron bean pot (holds about eleven pounds of dried beans) is lowered into the pit, covered over with dirt and allowed to cook, usually overnight. Several bean pits could keep beans cooking at all times.

It is generally believed that the loggers learned to make bean hole beans form the Indians; others learned from the loggers. The tradition continued after the logging camps declined. Bean holes can be found not only at large community suppers, but also at summer vacation camps throughout Maine.

For more on Maine’s bean hole beans use the links on the sidebar.