HADLEY, Mass. -- John Withee can talk animatedly about beans for just about as long as he cooks them. And he starts his beans at 6 a.m. -- for a 6 p.m. dinner.
Name the bean -- Trout, Loch Ness, Rattlesnake, Jacob's Cattle, King Tut, Painted Lady, Seafarer, Horsehead -- and Mr. Withee can tell you its virtues, drawbacks, shape, size, history, and uses.
Mr. Withee is a bean expert with the proper bean breeding: He was born in Maine, and grew up eating beans nearly six days a week. He has written a bean cookbook (now out of print), and proudly notes that he is the originator of bean sausage and makes a mean pot of baked beans.
But he is best known, perhaps, for his bean collection. "Every place I went, I tried to find a bean I didn't have," he says of his 12-year search. "New Orleans was a good spot," he says with a nostalgic glance. "I found quite a few down there."
His collection of 1,200 beans was so extensive that, in 1978, Organic Gardening magazine and the Seed-Savers Exchange in Iowa requested portions of it to preserve in their seed banks.
Before retiring, Mr. Withee headed Dartmouth College's photography department, and worked as a medical photographer in Massachusetts. Despite his state-hopping, he is still pure Mainer, reminiscing at length on the good ol' bean days.
Mr. Withee grew up in Gorham, Maine, near Kennebunkport, in a family of eight. His father was a grocer, and one day brought home a barrel full of Soldier beans. "We ate Soldier beans all
winter," he recalls in an interview at his home in this little farming community north of Springfield, Mass. "Saturday night was baked beans, Sunday morning was the warmed-over beans. . . . Any remainder of those beans made wonderful bean sandwiches for school -- mashed beans with a little bit of mayonnaise makes a wonderful sandwich," he says.
"Wednesday was always stew beans," cooked on top of the stove to make a hearty bean soup. Thursday was the same. "Then there was a day off before Saturday nights rolled around again.
"Beans are very versatile," he says. There are even recipes for bean cake and candy, he adds.
Mr. Withee's family sometimes baked their beans in the back yard in a bean hole -- an ancient cooking technique that dates from Biblical times, he says. Some religious groups' beliefs prohibited cooking on the Saturday sabbath, but a warm meal was still possible by preparing food this way the day before. Maine loggers also used to cook this way, and the tradition is celebrated in South Paris, Maine, with a bean-hole bean festival every year.
Mr. Withee laments beans' reputation: "They've always had such a low image," he says -- the expression "They don't know beans," for example. But among Mainers, the lowly bean is king, and must be prepared as such.
Don't dice up the pork, Mr. Withee says. "No Mainer ever does that," he scoffs. "He cuts the pork in half," so that he can throw it away if he wants. "If somebody wants a perfect baked bean of any variety, then they must search out a truly smoked bacon," he says. "The bacon we usually buy is painted-on smoke."
He abhors ketchup or an onion in his pot, and always uses molasses. Using maple syrup is just a waste of maple syrup, he says.
"The difference between sweet beans and unsweetened is a matter that will divide families," he continues. "My contention has always been that people, generally, in their recipes and in their practice, make the beans too sweet. . . . If you follow somebody's recipe for baked beans, cut the amount of sweetener by half, because it's possible to add, but you can't subtract sweetening."
A good baking bean is one that will "stand up to the baking time." If the beans are cooked too quickly, their protein won't break down enough to be digestible.
When asked whether he mixes his beans, he replies in Mainer-ese, "Oh, ya-a-a-a. You're going to get an altogether different treat because of the mouth sensation, with a little bean, and a big bean, and one that's a little different cooked."
"Any of the beans can make baked beans," even lima beans, he says. In fact, try mixing different varieties in the same pot, he suggests. You get "an altogether different treat because of the mouth sensation, with a little bean, and a big bean, and one that's a little different cooked." He admits he has difficulty tasting the difference between bean varieties, "except when it comes to a red kidney."
To put leftover beans to good use, he says, mash 2 cups beans with a beaten egg. Shape into patties and roll in bread crumbs. Brown in hot fat or butter. Or, spread baked beans on bread and toast under broiler with tomato and bacon, or cheese and tomato.
Beans don't get tougher as they get bigger, he says. "Some fancy restaurant in California uses (big beans) as a dip, a little hors d'oeuvre."
When Mr. Withee made bean collecting into a full-time hobby, he started a bean catalog that resulted in correspondence. He traded beans like collectors trade stamps or baseball cards.
Today, it's thought that there are more than 4,000 bean varieties.
John Withee's baked beans
Serves six to eight.
1 pound dry Jacob's Cattle, Yellow Eye, Soldier (or other) beans
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
4 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
3/8 to 1/2 pound smoked bacon, cut in pieces
Rinse and pick over beans. Soak overnight. Bring to a boil in same water, adding more water to cover, if needed. Simmer, covered, 1 to 2 hours until bean coats crack when blown on. Reserve cooking water, and mix with spices and molasses. Place 1/4 pound bacon in pot, then add beans and seasoned liquid. Add more water to cover beans. Put remaining bacon on top. Cover and bake at 250 degrees for 10 hours, adding water as necessary.