“Beanery” was less a name that an eating place would claim for itself than a slang term for a cheap and lowly lunch room. In these eating places baked beans was a staple dish going back at least as far as the mid-1800s. Milliken’s Beefsteak & Coffee Room in lower Manhattan offered its customers pork and beans in 1845. The price was 6 cents, the same, surprisingly, as roast beef or chicken pot pie.
Before sweet things became standard breakfast fare, baked beans were considered ideal for the morning meal. In fact the beauty of beans was that they made a square meal 24 hours a day. Like ham and eggs, they were favorites at all-night eating places. They could also be found in other nighttime establishments such as Silk & Anderson’s Saloon, Billiard and Keno Hall in Trinidad, Colorado, established in 1876, where baked beans, ham, and cole slaw made up the free “lunch” spread from 9:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning.
Baked beans could be found in restaurants all over the U.S. – Cincinnati, San Francisco, New Orleans – but it was in hard-edged Chicago, New York, and Boston where the slang term “beanery” especially captured the imagination of writers. Despite the unsentimental words of a 1908 hash house waitress, “There ain’t no romance about pork and beans or any of it. It’s all to the real life, and a punched check for a finish,” novelists of that time loved to set their tales of salty characters in big city beaneries.
Each city’s beaneries had a different character. Chicago’s South Clark Street, “toothpick row,” was full of them but beans also did duty in the city’s saloons where a 5¢ glass of beer earned a free lunch of beef and baked beans, with pickles, olives, and celery for trimmings. New York City was known for its “beef and” places, as they were called. The beef, in this case, was corned and everyone knew the missing word after beef was beans.
In Boston baked beans formed a considerable industry. Bakeries and other bean specialists ran hot ovens full of beanpots every night, turning out 32 million quarts annually which they delivered daily to restaurants and lunch counters. Baked beans often appeared on menus accompanied by brown bread, a combo known as “B. B. B. & B. B.” Even in 1921 when beans were slipping out of favor as a restaurant dish, the Childs chain found demand strong enough to keep them (and oysters) on their Boston breakfast menus.
It was said that baked beans was too frugal a dish to be popular in Los Angeles where garden produce was available year round. Yet “Ptomaine Tommy” DeForest laid claim to inventing a bean dish unique to L.A., the mysteriously named “size,” a hamburger on a bun covered with chili and diced raw onions.
By the 1960s Americans had outgrown their love of baked beans. In a restaurant trade book of 1966 they are listed as “foods to shun,” along with kidneys, chipped beef, turnips, and rutabagas.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008