Monday, March 07, 2016

And the winner is... Baked Beans

It seems every old cowboy movie had a camp cook serving up a mess of baked beans. I can see John Wayne eating them now. . . from a tin plate with an old battered spoon and a chunk of sourdough bread. So, it's fitting that when I asked rancher Art Unsworth for a recipe from the annual Murraydale Stampede and Picnic, he sent a recipe for baked beans.

The Murraydale Stampede and Picnic has been held every summer since 1909 in ranch country south of Maple Creek. On the second Sunday in July, local families gather in a natural amphitheatre on the edge of the Nekaneet First Nation for an afternoon of socializing, rodeo and food. Four generations of the Unsworth family have been in attendance.

Their story is not uncommon for prairie pioneers. Sam and Lillian Unsworth and four children left England in 1895, settling in Ontario for a couple of years before relocating by covered wagon to Oregon. Sam took up sheep farming. However, their daughter died tragically on the farm and they could no longer bear to live there.

In 1907, they packed up the wagon and moved again, back to Canada, establishing a ranch near the Cypress Hills. They raised sheep, cattle, Clydesdale horses and fifteen children. Art is the youngest of 43 grandchildren and the third generation on the ranch.

Among his oldest memories is attending the Murraydale Stampede and Picnic, when the ladies outdid each other with fried chicken, roast beef, potato salad, cold baked beans, homemade buns and rhubarb pie. The men made ice cream. For a young cowpoke "it was like dining in heaven," he says. “The ladies brought their specialties of the summer. It was sort of like Christmas time when the best pickles were brought out. We got them at Easter time, at Christmas time and at the Murraydale picnic.”

Back before refrigeration, preparations for the picnic began in early spring when the men cut blocks of ice from a frozen pond and kept them cool and covered until the picnic. The shaved ice was used to churn ice cream, a rare treat on a dusty prairie summer day.

An early history of the event was published in a local newspaper: "Mr. Boardman […] made ice cream with a hand turned freezer. Later he rigged a gas engine to do the job. The women set up long tables at which to eat, resembling a banquet or a pot luck establishment. As years went by the stampede and picnic grew."

Later, concession stands were set up to sell hamburgers, hotdogs and store-bought ice cream, but many families still pack a picnic hamper and stake their favourite spot from which to watch the rodeo and eat their evening meal.

"I’ve got a fond spot for the baked beans," says Art. "And fried chicken always tastes better outdoors."

This recipe for baked beans originally called for salt pork, which was a method of preserving pork in the old days. Nowadays, it's made with bacon. With the long oven time, I can imagine Mrs. Unsworth baking these beans in the cool of a summer's night and taking them cold to the picnic. But they're also a great way to warm up a cold winter's day and an old-fashioned hot supper.
Old Fashioned Baked Beans
1 lb (450 grams) white beans
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp mustard powder
1/4 cup molasses
3 cups water
1/2 lb (225 grams) bacon, diced
2-3 onions, finely chopped

Soak beans overnight. Drain, wash and boil beans in water until soft and tender. Drain.

Mix brown sugar, salt, pepper, mustard powder, molasses and water. Pour over beans. Stir in bacon and onions. Cover and bake at 250F for 7–8 hours, checking now and then and adding more water if needed. Remove lid for the final two hours of baking.

Cook's note: I like to do the first step of cooking the beans in a small crockpot. I set the crockpot on low and leave it overnight.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

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