First, catch your haricot bean

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Yesterday I was talking about baked beans, in honour of the fact that Mr Heinz started trapping these poor little things in a tin a hundred years ago, and today I want to go back in time to 1852, more than 40 years before Mr Heinz first put a baked haricot bean in a tin, and quote this from Charles Francatelli's A Plain Cookery Book For the Working Classes.

"In France, haricot beans form a principal part in the staple articles of food for the working classes, and indeed for the entire population; it is much to be desired that some effectual means should be adopted for the purpose of introducing and encouraging the use of this most excellent vegetable among the people of England as a general article of daily food, more especially in the winter. If this desideratum could be accomplished, its beneficial result would go far to assist in rendering us in a measure independent of the potato crop, which, of late years, has proved so uncertain. I am aware that haricot beans, as well as lentils, as at present imported and retailed as a mere luxury to such as possess cooks who know how to dress them, might lead to the rejection of my proposal that they should be adopted as food by the people; but I see no reason why haricot beans should not be imported to this country in such quantities as would enable the importers to retail them at a somewhat similar low price as that in which they are sold at in France."

So, in 1852 haricot beans were generally seen as a snob and expensive imported item (and lentils, too!).

But there is worse to come. Let us pass swiftly on to 1877, when Kettner's Book of the Table appeared, purporting to be from the pen of Mr Kettner of the restaurant of that name, but actually written by ES Dallas. Here is what the two of them had to say about beans:

"Beans are more than beans, good for food and pleasant to the taste: they are a moral lesson. The priests of Egypt held it a crime even to look at beans - the very sight of them unclean. Lucian introduces a philosopher in hell declaring that it would be difficult to say which were the greater crime - to eat beans, or to eat one's father's head. Pythagoras forbade his disciples to eat beans, because they are formed of the rotten core out of which man was created. The Roman ate beans at funerals with awe, from the idea that the souls of the dead were in them. Two thousand years pass by, and here we are now eating beans with the most thorough enjoyment and the most perfect unconcern. Moral: get rid of prejudice and call nothing unclean."

The time had clearly come for something to be done about beans, and in 1895 Heinz did it; he baked and tinned them. But I do not think that Mr Heinz was inspired to put his baked beans in a tin because of Mr Francatelli's plans to replace the potato or to benefit the working class. I think Mr Heinz's inspiration was purely American, viz that of Boston Baked Beans. This is a grand old American dish, probably based on a French cassoulet, says Jane Grigson in her grand old Vegetable Book, but in that book she gives an old family recipe "with duck instead of goose. It is much sweeter than the French would like, and in this it comes close to Boston Baked Beans".

Jane Grigson's recipe contains beer (nearly three pints of it), ginger, lemon, maple sugar, blackstrap molasses, mustard, pork, and many other things. It is, it is fair to say, more interesting than Heinz Baked Beans. If you look at the ingredients listed on the side of a Heinz Baked Bean tin you will not see any mention of molasses, blackstrap or otherwise, of mustard, pork, maple, sugar, lemon. The only ingredients in Heinz Baked Beans, in fact, are "Beans, Water, Tomatoes, Sugar, Salt, Modified Cornflour, Spirit Vinegar, Spices".

It isn't much to show for 100 years of evolution, is it? I mean, a product in which water is the second most highly used ingredient?

I have in my strange cookery library another volume called 100 Ways of Using Marmite. I wonder if Heinz has ever produced a volume called 100 Ways of Using Baked Beans? I wonder if there are a hundred ways of using baked beans? Actually, I wonder if there are any ways of using baked beans, apart from as a crown for Scottish pies and that doesn't count?

In the many years I have spent browsing on research for this article I have only come across one recipe by a classy author that involved tinned baked beans as an ingredient. It comes from Ambrose Heath's wartime volume Good Dishes from Tinned Foods, it is called Baked Bean Soup, and it is disgusting.

Over to you, Mr Heinz.

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