The Baptist preacher who married most of Bill Miller’s children told Bill’s wife Liz that her husband made the best baked beans in all of Petersburg.
Liz agreed as she stood in the back yard of her in-law’s homestead with a paper plate in hand. She took a bite of Bill’s beans and smiled at the preacher. In the 1970’s, all Dutch settlers in PA made baked beans for family reunions. Bill was the only one who added real pork to Campbell’s pork and beans.
Much time has passed since the day the preacher gave his blessing on Bill’s beans. Liz still tells the story of how her husband impressed a preacher—it’s just one of those things that old women remember about their old men, long after they have passed.
The secret to Bill’s baked beans was never written upon a card, or in a cookbook, or on unused pages of the one Bible Liz and Bill owned.
I watched him as a little boy. I stood atop a metal heating vent from which my grandfather’s furnace spit forth toasty air that was slightly scented with coal and burnt wood. Steps away, atop a white, linoleum floor, my grandfather, smiling with the thought of a cold six pack in his head, opened three large cans of Campbell’s pork and beans with a cheap can opener that only worked because he figured out how to use it as a type of metal pruning shear.
So many mouths to feed, no extra change to buy a new can opener, yet enough pepper went into those beans to feed an army.
“This pepper will put hair on your chest,” he promised to me as he giggled and rubbed his bald head. Somehow he could cook with just one hand. He could open those big Campbell’s cans with one hand– always he had a cigarette in his hand or mouth– I’m convinced those beans tasted so good because of a combination of the smoke from his furnace and smoke coming from his Pal Mal’s.
In a cast iron skillet with the smell of burned coal in the kitchen, he fried a pound of bacon.
He told me to stand away from the green stove as he poured the hot grease into a black turkey roaster filled halfway with sandy beans. An entire box of brown sugar was then added, and later, strips of salty bacon were crumbled in Bill’s callous hands and sprinkled in as he stirred with a wooden spoon.
Hours later, after the last dish was washed and the cast iron skillet was soaking in the sink, I stood atop the metal heating vent in my bare feet, still dripping wet from a bath in a cast iron tub. I ate another plate of cold baked beans while the entire family slept.