Last summer, on the final day of school, I drove Phoebe up to Skaneatles, a beautiful postcard-y town in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It was a belated sixth birthday celebration, and an opportunity for a little old school father-daughter bonding. The plan was to stay two nights in the Sherwood Inn, go for a cruise around the lake on the Judge Ben Wiles, do some hiking up at a nature preserve in Baldwinsville, and, of course, eat our faces off at the famous (locally, at least) Doug’s Fish Fry. Doug’s is one of those places that feels like it’s never not been there, where you grab a red plastic tray and order at a long counter, cafeteria-style, the kind of place where every entree comes with a side of slaw, and where there’s a model train running on an endless loop around the main dining room. Our first night, we went to Doug’s and ordered our fish and fries, and I got a side of baked beans. Now, let me back up for a second: at this point, Phoebe had never eaten a bean in her life. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them; she was appalled, repulsed, and disgusted by them. When I made chili, I’d have to keep one half of the pan bean-free or risk her not touching any of it. When I put a small bowl of black beans on Phoebe’s plate, to go along with her quesadilla, she would pick up the bowl with the tips of her fingers and remove it from her plate with utter contempt. Anyway: back to our night at Doug’s. We carried our trays to our table, got our ketchup and tartar sauce and tabasco, and sat down. Damn, did my beans look good — thicky and gooey, dark with molasses, with chunks of pork product floating in it. “Come on, Phoebe,” I said. “How can you not like this?”
“No thanks,” she said.
I pressed on, trying to reason, trying to make her see. “Okay, but let me ask you,” I said. “Do you like ketchup?”
“Brown sugar? Molasses? Bacon?”
Yes, yes, and yes.
Well, I explained, that’s what is in these beans! (Plus, you know, beans.) I offered her the standard deal: just one bite. Try it once and if you hate it, spit it out. She finally relented, had her one bite, and, to her eternal credit, swallowed her pride and declared her undying love for baked beans. I was relieved that she had seen the light, of course, but frankly wondered what had taken her so long. Baked beans were a staple of my youth, the perfect food; they were what we ate with our hamburgers and hot dogs, only we called them “Cowboy Beans” for the picture of cowboys sitting around a fire of on the label of the Campbell’s can. They were practically engineered for kids!
The beauty of Phoebe’s conversion at Doug’s was that, once she had fessed up to liking baked beans, a whole new world of family dinner possibilities opened up to us. No longer could she say she didn’t like beans. Black beans (for our burritos), white beans (for our chili and our white bean soup), garbanzo beans, refrieds (to go with our tacos), lentil salad: One by one, the dominoes fell — except for lentils, which we’re still working on. And in addition to being an easy first step to incorporating beans into the family repertoire, baked beans are — for my money, at least — an ideal default dinner. When we need a super quick lunch before soccer, if the refrigerator is empty and we have nothing to make for dinner, if we’re exhausted and don’t feel like cooking and can’t bear another frozen pizza, we get a couple of pieces of baguette, dump half a can of beans on top, hand out the knives and forks, and we’re done. — Andy
PS: Cookbook owners, though the Maple Baked Beans on page 256 take 5 hours and 55 more minutes than this version, you will love having them bubbling away in the oven during any Sunday afternoon in autumn. They smell as good as they taste.