This year like last, I decided to celebrate my country tis of thee’s birthday by escaping Gotham and it’s heaving crowds invading my neighborhood to see Regis, Katy Perry, and fiery exploding things launched off barges in my river. My destination? South of the Mason-Dixon to the land of Jefferson, salty pork products, peanuts, and FABULOUS gay men, Richmond Virginia. I LOVE visiting my dear friends in Richmond, and I’m always welcomed gleefully despite my loud-mouthed Yankee-ness. Actually, I think it’s exactly that big city broad quality that makes me so welcome down south. At least in the crowd I hang with. For it’s precisely my tendency to stick out like a mourner in a sequined red dress once the mouth opens that scores me the hottest Independence Day ticket in town – a balcony perch in the home of gracious southern men for fireworks over the James River. Fight the crowds, traffic and stifling heat…oh NO my dears, not in this fabulously appointed aerie. Here it’s cocktails, appropriately festooned sweet and savory noshes, a few stars, a couple of spangles, and plenty of sassy talk all set to a dance beat in cool climate-controlled air. Up in this glorious nest all ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhs’ are well synchronized with the exploding shells above the river, and the occasional handsome fella in the teeming crowds below.
Of course, being a she-queen in a roomful of royalty does have its responsibilities. A fresh coat of paint on nails and toes, an ensemble festive enough for the occasion, and the proper pair of shoes is a must. Flip-flops are a no-no here, unless patriotically spangled and kitten-heeled. I do have a reputation to consider. As for my attire, shorts would also never do. Because if they are frowned upon on ladies in Paris or Rome, they are downright scandalous in this crowd. A frock is the thing, with just enough flow to blow gently in an elevated veranda breeze, but not so much that the up-glancing public at ground level get a floorshow (without paying the two-drink minimum.) Once the “packaging” is complete and lipstick applied, all I need do to mesh with this crowd is walk through the door with a smile and some sass. When the first snarky comment flies from my glossed lips, I fit in like cream gravy on biscuits. And this year, like last, I thank my sweet southern brothers for their wonderful hospitality and always making me feel right at home. There isn’t much better company when celebrating the freedom of thought, words and action so important to our nation’s survival than these lovely southern gents.
One of my dearest friends moved back to Richmond last year and introduced me to this charming city. Whenever Darryl and I get together, cooking is ALWAYS part of the plan (along with mani-pedis and LOTS of laughing). This year we took on the challenge of deciphering an old family recipe his husband Monte used to make, and by Jove, I think we got it! Baked beans are a staple of any summer barbecue, and Monte’s Baked Beans are now my absolute favorite. These are not cloyingly sweet, the beans retain some texture rather than turning to mush, and they taste even better the next day. Best of all, they cook for several hours in a very low oven with little need for babysitting. Give them a try – I bet they become your new favorite too!
Monte’s Baked Beans
By our figuring, this recipe is at least 150 years old and attributed to a Carolinian with the fabulous name of Hershella Smith. From start to finish these can take about 16+ hours between soaking and cooking, so make sure to start them the night before you want to serve them.
- 1 lb dried navy beans
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- ¾ lb salt pork, meaty slab bacon, or Smithfield ham chips
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- ¾ cup dark molasses (Grandma’s)
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- ½ tsp dry ginger
- 2 TBSP cider vinegar
- 3 TBSP brown sugar
Soak the beans overnight. Drain and add to large saucepot. Add enough fresh water to just cover, bring to a boil and simmer just until the skins on the beans break.
Preheat oven to 250°F. In a large bowl, mix together the onions, garlic, salt, molasses, dry mustard, ginger, vinegar and brown sugar. Add in the beans and their cooking liquid and mix well. Turn the bean mixture into a dutch oven or large heavy bottomed stewpot with tightly fitting cover (or, if you are lucky enough to have one, a crockery bean pot.) If you are using the piece of salt pork or slab bacon, score and press into beans, leaving ¼” uncovered. If you are using the Smithfield ham chips, mix into the beans.
Cover pot and bake in oven 6-8 hours, or until beans are soft but still hold their shape and are a rich brown color. Check the beans after the first 90 minutes, and add additional hot water if needed (enough until it comes just up to the beans but doesn’t cover). Once the beans are cooked through, take the lid off the pot, mix well and let sit in the oven, uncovered for another 45 minutes to hour. [NOTE: If you are using salt pork or slab bacon, take out of beans, remove fatty layer, cut up the meaty part into small cubes and mix back into the finished beans.]
These can sit in the oven (turned off, and pot covered) and keep warm until you are ready to serve. Just remember to serve (we forgot to with the main meal, so we had them as a pre-dessert course, and they were GREAT!)