Home to Plaster Rock: In Search of Stories

I have lots of stories about trips gone awry. About falling in a temple pond in Kyoto, losing my purse the first day of a cross-continent trip, car troubles in Maine and a night with strangers.

It’s the joy of being a storyteller. Mishaps, absurdities, and everything unexpected can be transformed into story.

This morning I’m on the road again. And I’m hoping for and expecting new stories before I’m done.

There’s my destination, Plaster Rock, a village in New Brunswick, Canada. It is not one of those quaint fishing villages on the Bay of Fundy. It’s deep in the interior, not far from Caribou, Maine.  A place of potato farms surrounded by vast stretches of forest.

The town is having a homecoming for all those who left for more prosperous places, like Alberta, or Ontario, or the States.  For sure, I’ll go the parade on Saturday afternoon. Maybe I’ll stop by the dance Saturday night. I expect loud fiddle music and lots of beer. The last time I went to a Plaster Rock dance, fifty years ago, a stranger swung me round so hard and fast my feet left the floor.

My father’s family has lived in New Brunswick for more than 200 years. My father was born on a farm near Plaster Rock and his father before him. We go back to the 1700s, when Abraham Marston left the United States after fighting in the American Revolution–on the British side.

I’ll meet my cousin there. Wayne grew up in Plaster Rock. Life was tough, and his was tougher and more tragic than most. Our grandfather had hanged himself when our dads were kids, and they grew up poor. The Depression didn’t help. My father left when he was a young man. but Wayne’s father stayed behind. Wayne now lives in Ontario…and he’s a member of Parliament. How did he overcome such hardships and why does is he going to the homecoming too? I want to hear his stories.

My brother’s wife, Patti, will meet us there too. She’s visiting her mother in Saint John and they will both drive over to meet us, a four hour trip. Turns out that Patti is a distant relative of Wayne’s mother. Good company and more stories.

We’ll visit graveyards and homesteads and talk to the old people who stayed behind. Erv from Bangor will meet us. I think our grandfathers were brothers. More stories.

And I expect a few good stories about the journey itself. Today I’ll start the 600 mile trip north to Montreal, past Quebec city, along the Saint Lawrence River to Riviere du Loup, and then over through the deep woods of the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick to our family’s home.

The last leg of the car trip is on a road voted one of the ten most dangerous in Canada. It’s twisty and hilly, built mainly for loggers. The soft soil and big trucks mean the road is always in need of repairs.

“At least there’ll be no snow,” Patti said over the phone.

“But you must watch out for the moose,” I heard her mother say. “Whatever you do, don’t drive after dark.”

And I promise not to. And coming home, I’ll come the other way, down through Maine. I’ll  see new places, and, of course, I’ll stop at the L. L. Bean outlet in Freeport. Even for someone who loves stories, sometimes it’s just about the shopping.

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(Recipe) My Mother’s Saturday Night Homemade Baked Beans

Beans good for homemade baked beans

Yellow-eyed beans, uncooked

Intro: I promised the recipe for my mother’s homemade baked beans. Here it is. Now, if your family’s recipe is better, we all want to know.

Enjoy.

Amount: Makes enough for a six-cup bean pot.

2 cups beans.

My mother used to say that yellow-eyed beans were best.  But she could never get them out West, so she used navy beans (also traditional) or a mixture of navy, kidney, and pinto beans (not traditional at all, but good).

If you want to use a full pound of beans, which is just a little more than 2 cups, no problem.  I use less because my bean pot isn’t big enough to hold that much.

1/2 cup molasses.

Not blackstrap.  You want the label to say “fancy” or “mild.” Mom liked Crosby’s Fancy Molasses.  In the States, if I can’t find Crosby’s, I use Grandma’s or Brer Rabbit. All are just fine.

You could substitute pure maple syrup. In fact, amber maple syrup is wonderful in beans. It’s just darned expensive.

Don’t substitute maple-flavored pancake syrup.

Some people add a little brown sugar too. I have no idea why.

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard

Look for mustard powder in the spice section of your supermarket. I like Colman’s mustard–just because the yellow metal tin is charming. Mustard lasts forever. If you mix it with water, you can make blazingly hot mustard, good for egg rolls.

1 small, whole onion, peeled

4 ounces salt pork.

Your supermarket probably stocks this, even if you’ve never noticed it there before. Here in Saratoga, I buy it in a 12 ounce package, good for 3 pots of beans. It keeps forever in the fridge, which is good, because I don’t make beans often.

In my opinion, neither the salt pork nor the onion tastes good cooked in beans. But they contribute greatly to the flavor of the beans, and they are definitely traditional. You could substitute bacon, but remember, it won’t get crisp cooking in a pot of beans. In my vegetarian phases, I have substituted a stick of butter, which is delicious.

1/4 cup ketchup, optional

My mother felt daring when she added ketchup. She felt it was her own idea though I’ve seen quite a few old recipes that include it. (Sorry, Mom.)

Some old recipes suggest a pinch of baking soda to make the beans softer, quicker. But I’ve read that it destroys nutrients, and you don’t really need it

Method

Beans are not a last minute affair.  Ideally you’ll start the evening before although you can begin early in the morning that you want to serve them. I’ll explain how below.

  1. Spread the beans on a light-colored plate or tray, a handful at a time, to look for & discard stones, stems, or damaged beans. Cover the beans with water.  Throw away anything that floats. Swish the beans around to get them clean. Drain.
  2. Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. (If you forget that, put them in a pot, add water to cover by 3 or 4 inches, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let them sit for an hour.)
  3. Drain and rinse.
  4. Put them in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil, and simmer on very low heat for 30 minutes.
  5. In the bottom of the bean pot, put onion and the salt pork. I cut into the pork down to the rind in two or three places.  Add the beans, salt and pepper, molasses, mustard, and ketchup (if you’re using it).
  6. The beans should be covered by about 1/4” to 1/2” of water. If it’s not, add a little boiling water. Put the lid on.
  7. Put in a 300℉ oven. Cook about 8 hours. Every hour or two, check the water level. If the beans are not covered with liquid, add a little boiling water. Don’t add any liquid in the last half hour or so.  You want the liquid to get dark and thick. By the time you serve the beans, they should be just barely covered with liquid.

You can cook beans in a crock pot or a covered casserole instead of a bean pot, but the beans may not be quite as dark and delicious.

The water will evaporate quicker in a casserole; you’ll have to keep a sharp eye on it. It  will evaporate more slowly in a crock pot. Be careful not to add too much liquid.

Beans freeze beautifully.

Homemade Baked Beans

Baked Beans

We ate baked beans every Saturday night. It was all because my family was from New Brunswick, on the East coast of Canada. As far as I know, every person in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island used to eat baked beans on Saturday night.  In New England too. I would bet good money that many people Down East still do.

My mother said she made beans because it was convenient. We could go shopping on Saturday and not have to worry about cooking dinner.  The beans were already in the oven.

But I knew the truth. It was tradition.

It didn’t matter whether we still lived in New Brunswick.  It didn’t matter whether we wanted beans that Saturday night.  If it was Saturday, beans were what we were going to eat.

Personally, I thought beans were a boring excuse for a meal. Adding hot dogs or fish cakes and biscuits or homemade bread didn’t particularly help.

I dreaded the years my birthday fell on a Saturday. Birthday cake–and beans!

Washing the bean pot was on my list of most-dreaded chores.  My sister and I took turns washing the dishes, and each of us, day by day, decided the pot needed to soak a little longer.  Saturday morning would come and my mother would hit the roof because the bean pot was full of smelly, funky water with a few of last week’s beans still clinging to the sides.

My mother was proud of her beans. And for some reason, other people liked them too. I think it was just because Westerners thought that beans came out of a Heinz can. They praised her beans to the sky.  They stopped by on a Saturday afternoon, hoping to be invited for supper. They knew she always cooked enough to feed everyone on the north side of town.

All I could think was, “For heaven’s sake, I wish they wouldn’t encourage her!”

When I grew up and left home, I stopped thinking about baked beans, unless I was visiting my family–and Saturday night rolled around.

And in my own home, I didn’t make or eat homemade beans.

The first time my mother came to visit me, she made herself at home in my kitchen.  I heard the sounds of clashing pots. After a few minutes, she came to me, puzzled.

“Margaret,” she said. “Where do you keep your bean pot?”

“I don’t have one,” I replied.

My mother thought about that for several seconds.

“Well then,” she said, “How do you make beans?”

And I replied with the answer that left her flabbergasted.

“I don’t.”

Years and years passed.  I reached the age of nostalgia. I began to long, just a little, for real homemade baked beans. I even began to long for a bean pot of my very own.

In an antique shop in western New York state, one of those cluttered, junky, dusty, dirt-cheap antique shops, I spotted a small bean pot. Chubby, brown on top, cream on the bottom. The right colors, the right shape, the right kind of handles, the right lid.

“That would be just the right size,” I thought. And I bought it.

Since then, every once in a long while, I make baked beans. I know how. I’d watched my mother hundreds of times.  I’d made them myself too.  Reluctantly, to be sure, but I’d made them.

Mine are never quite as good as hers.

She never used a recipe, didn’t need to.  But I’ve tried to guesstimate the amounts for the beans she made, just in case you or my children or my grandchildren develop a craving for beans, New Brunswick style.

I’ll test it one more time and post it for you tomorrow or the next day.

Enjoy.

The Story Walker

Kathleen Gill, the Story WalkerLong ago storytellers used to travel from place to place, telling and learning stories everywhere they went.  Come to think of it, they still do. But of all the storytellers I know, few travel quite like  Kathleen Gill, who’ll be the featured teller this month at storytelling open mic. (June 14th, 7 pm, at Caffè Lena in Saratoga, NY.)  Kathleen is an ardent hiker with a passion and a knack for sharing stories along the way. And it seems there are few trails she hasn’t followed.
When I mention Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada, near the potato farm where my family had lived for generations, Kathleen replies, “Sure, great place.  I went to a fantastic fiddling festival there when I hiked the international Applachian trail.”  [A fiddling festival?  Who knew?] Believe me, if ever a place was off the beaten track, it’s Plaster Rock.  Think Cariboo, Maine.  Now head north.
When I mention heavy World War I casualties in Newfoundland, Kathleen jumps into the story of the night that the lights went out in St. Johns. Men went from house to house to tell families that 684 of their young men, 91% of all the Newfoundlanders asked to “go over the top” that day had died. It was in July of 1916 at the battle of the Somme. She heard that story hiking in Newfoundland.
Over several summers, Kathleen hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail–then wrote a book about it, Story Walking the Appalachian Trail. Look for it; it’s a good read.
Lately Kathleen has been coping with some major health issues.  For now, she’s limited in what she can do.  But amazingly, she tells me she still finds ways to go hiking.
I don’t know if she’ll tell hiking stories on June 14th.  Her repertoire is rich. But I know I’ll be there. If you’re in the area, why don’t you come too?

Saratoga Storytelling Open Mic
June 14th, at 7 pm at Caffè Lena, Saratoga, NY