A comic theme running through Don Marquis’s 1927 book “The Almost Perfect State” is his avowed distaste for beans. “The ancient Egyptians lived largely on lentils; and where are the Pharaohs now?” Don asks at the start of the book, and he proceeds to blame all the world’s ills on the deleterious effects of the “accursed” bean.
“There will be no beans in the Almost Perfect State,” he flatly declares, but at the end of the book he reveals the joke: “If you will eat beans, here is the way to prepare them,” Don writes, and he then delivers, in narrative form, a glorious, laborious recipe for country-style baked beans made with generous helpings of salt pork, molasses, onions and mustard.
Marquis expert Jim Ennes reports that at a 1978 party in Port Townsend, Washington, marking the 100th anniverary of Don’s birth, several dozen fans were treated to a dinner featuring baked beans prepared just as Don instructed. Jim says they were delicious. The party also marked the first publication of “Everything’s Jake,” a play written by Don that ran on Broadway in 1930. Alongside Jim, guests at the birthday party included Robert Lyon, the party’s host and publisher of “Everything’s Jake”; William McCollum Jr., editor of “Selected Letters of Don Marquis”; and Frank Herbert, author of the “Dune” trilogy.
DON MARQUIS’ BAKED BEANS
By Don Marquis
From “The Almost Perfect State,” 1927
If you will eat beans, here is the way to prepare them.
First, you must have an earthenware Bean Pot, about six hands high, and of a dark bay colour. It is better if this Bean Pot is inherited from a favourite grandmother, with a porous texture (the Bean Pot, not the grandmother) that has absorbed and retained the sentimental traditions of at least three generations. But if you own no such heirloom (more precious than the rubies of an imperial crown!) a new one can be made to do.
Procure your white navy beans, and pick them over on a Friday night, not hastily or cursorily, but with love and care, one bean at a time, for this is both an art and a science on which you have embarked–it is more; it is almost a religious rite. Cast from you all split beans, all rusty or spotted beans, all too-wrinkly beans; save only such superior beans, smooth, hard, and shining, as a twelve-months’ old child would love to poke up his nose.
Put these aristocrats to soak in water that has three or four tablespoonfuls of baking soda in it. Don’t ask me why the soda. I am not arguing with you. I am telling you.
Some people say that after these beans have soaked all night they are ready to bake.
These people lie.
They are not ready to bake.
They are merely ready to boil.
Boil them from ten o’clock Saturday morning until noon, in a pot with a piece of salt pork in it. And time your boiling so that on the stroke of twelve there is very little of the liquid remaining. For they must not go into the Sacred Earthenware Bean Pot, the Ancestral Amphora, too soupy or sloppy.
Put into the bottom of the Bean Pot a layer of Beans four fingers deep. Poke deeply into this one bay leaf.
Put on top of this a layer consisting of pieces of just the right kinds of salt pork.
On top of the layer of pork, dribble a thin layer of thick New Orleans molasses.
Put in another layer of beans.
Into this second layer poke four or five slender curling strips of pungent shredded onion. Put a dab of mustard on the onion.
Then a sparse layer of pork. Then another dribbled layer of molasses.
Pause and put your Ego in harmony with the Cosmic All.
Build up these successive layers of beans, pork, and molasses, alternating the subtle bay leaf with the poetic onion, until the pot is filled within two inches of the top. From time to time, a conservative sprinkle of black pepper, as you work from the bottom upward. From time to time hum a verse of “Old Hundred.” Don’t put in any salt; the pork salts all.
Let the top layers of pork and molasses be a bit thicker than any of the others.
Bake, slowly, in a moderate oven, from noon until six o’clock in the evening. Some say it must be a brick oven. Nonsense! Your Bean Pot itself is your bricky heat-retaining medium.
Eat from six in the evening until midnight–and without fear of indigestion. The thorough cooking has taken all that sort of thing away.
Each separate bean of all these beans retains its form–almost. Almost. Not quite. Each bean is ready to melt tenderly into amalgamation with his neighbor bean. At the touch of the serving spoon the touched beans lose their individual identity, yield up their pride, merge gently into a kind of Bean Nirvana.
Some eat them with vinegar. Very good. Others with tomato catsup. I eat them with a squeeze of lemon juice. Ambrosia!