Flavin's Corner

Beans and Beer

      Last weekend I was characterized, by a fellow member of an e-mail
discussion group I subscribe to, as an "Irish, beer-swilling resident of
Greenwich Village..."  I stared at the words, somewhat confused, for the
longest time.  It was two years ago this weekend I left Brooklyn for a month's
working vacation in Beantown, a move which subsequently became permanent.
I've never lived in Greenwich Village, though I did begin writing this weekly
column for the online The Greenwich Village Gazette, but I stopped that
relationship Nov. 13th of last year.  I live in Boston and am content with my
beans and beer.  Maybe the fellow has something against the Irish.

     The Irish have been swilling beer for a long time.  I've always been proud to
share the same birthday as Guinness Extra Stout, whose first keg was carted
out from St. James' Gate in Dublin on Dec.31, 1759.  Now, though the Irish do
make the finest beer in the world, they cannot lay claim to having invented it.
No one can...  Beer has been around since the beginning of agriculture in the
late Neolithic and, indeed, some believe that beer was the reason we first began
to farm cereal grains, as working for months in the hot sun with the promise of
a keg or three of beer makes more sense than spending all that time and effort
for some loaves of bread.

     Archaeologists and paleobotanists have identified peas, beans, and legumes
at some very early sites and one in France dates back to 9000 BCE.  While
peas, beans, and legumes became dietary staples after the introduction of
agriculture, it's surprising to find such food-stuffs in any quantity that early.
The reason for surprise?  Why, because those peas, beans, and legumes, while
probably picked fresh and perhaps intended to be chewed immediately, soon
dried to a hardness capable of cracking teeth!  For peas, bean, and legumes, to
be used by ancient peoples, a soaking technology would've been applied for
softening and to make them edible.  Here then, I think, is where we touch upon
the origin of beer.

     Sometime between 7000 and 6000 BCE, probably many times and in many
places, folks became interested in wild cereal grains.  Such grains are useless
and inedible in their natural, unprocessed state.  Having a hardness comparable
to peas, beans, and legumes, a soaking technology would've been applied to
the grains.  It's been suggested the original use of grains was for a gruel or
porridge, an air-borne yeast instigated fermentation in a sample left unattended,
and some brave soul (probably a woman) drank the first beer.  In this model
bread developed much later, more than likely as a way to store the ingredients
for beer over the winter months, as in ancient Sumeria and their bippur bread
which was twice-baked for keeping and later tossed in water to begin the
beer-making process.

     The popularity of beer in ancient times is well attested to by the
Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi, as well as in the many decorated
beer-straws discovered in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, such as the young
King Tut.  But, what of the land between those two powerful and influential
countries?  Is there beer in The Bible?  Did Jesus swill beer?  Well...

     Proverbs 31 begins:

     The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him.  (2)
What, my son? and what, the son of my womb?  and what, the son of my
vows?  (3) Give not thy strength unto women, nor thy ways to that which
destroyeth kings.  (4) It is not for kings, O Lemnuel, it is not for kings to drink
wine; nor for princes strong drink.  (5) Lest they drink, and forget the law, and
pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.  (6) Give strong drink unto him
that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.  (7) Let
him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.

Some translators and commentators have encountered the Hebrew word sehar
and believed it to represent spirits (or distilled ethyl alcohol), termed it "strong
drink," but this was a mistake.  While Aristotle did mention the possible
essence contained in some things, as steam is "within" water, it's now thought
it was the late eighth century CE Arab chemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, who first
distilled, and this knowledge passed into Europe through Spain shortly
afterwards.  Others have argued that sehar refers to undiluted wine, but this
too is in error.  Sehar is Hebrew for beer, a beverage apparently imbibed by
royalty and commoners alike.  I can think of no good reason not to assume that
Jesus could have swilled beer on occasion.  Well, unless his mother told him
not to, but it doesn't appear that he listened to her that much anyway...  How
many of us do?

     Though I've forgotten much of what my mother wanted to pass along to
me, I'll always remember and continue to prepare her baked beans.  Mom's
beans consisted of the simplest of ingredients, but hers differed in the texture
achieved from slow-baking in the oven for hours.  In her later years it was a
private joke between us about how some others in the family would open up a
can of pork n' beans, empty the contents into a saucepan on the stove, add
some barbecue sauce, heat the mixture for a few minutes, and serve them ...as
baked beans.  We knew, of course, that this was wrong.  Some things take a
long time...  In the case of Mom's baked beans, 3 1/2 to 5 hours.

Mom's Baked Beans:

Variation #1
Prepare 2lbs (about 4 1/2 cups) dried navy or white beans according to
package directions or a handy cookbook.  Beans should be soft, but intact.  In
a large casserole dish combine beans with:
1 cup of ketchup
1/2 cup of either brown sugar, molasses, honey, or maple syrup
1 tablespoon of wet, yellow mustard
1 teaspoon dry mustard
salt and pepper to taste
(a dash of Tabasco or cayenne pepper, for zest)
several strips of bacon
2 cups finely chopped onions
Cover and bake at 250 degrees for 3 1/2 to 5 hours, stirring beans once an
hour for the first three hours, remove the cover and stir every 15 minutes or so
afterwards.  Beans are done when sauce mixture has thickened (just before
everything starts to burn).  Let cool and enjoy!

Variation #2 (how my Mom actually made them)
Skip the soaking and the boiling of dried beans and buy a couple of big cans of
pork n' beans.  Drain and discard roughly half of the can-liquid.  Follow recipe
for Variation #1 above.

     Chances are we'll never know the exact origin of beer, but it's inevitable that
some things remain shrouded in mystery forever.  That beans and beer are
today associated with one another, especially here in Boston, is a given.  Yeah,
I'm thinking that guy has a problem with the Irish...

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