How funny things can be oftentimes.
In January 2007, I mustered up my courage, waved goodbye to Malaysia, and boarded the plane for a 2 day-long journey to America — to a country I’d been dreaming of living in since I was in junior high.
During my 32 months in the land far away, I didn’t get to visit home once. For someone who had never traveled that far and been on her own for that long, I found myself struggling to adapt to the new physical environment. (An average of -15°C daily in the winter, for a season that lasts for 7 months a year. Imagine this, too: Sun rises at 9 a.m. and sets by 4.30 p.m. Vitamin-D deprivation? You bet!)
In the midst of coping with culture shock and academic requirements, I underwent depression during my first school term there, which took 7 kilograms out of me in 4 months. Time elapsed, and I was subsequently driven to constant homesickness. I’d daydream, missing my family and friends and everything at home that I took for granted. Every Lunar New Year, I’d be filled with deep remorse. “How I wish I’m home to immerse myself in the festivities … to celebrate New Year with my loved ones,” I’d say to myself as I sobbed.
Now that I’m home, I find myself in a similar situation. The tables are turned, however. I miss America, my “family” and friends and everything I took for granted there! With Thanksgiving drawing near, the sentiment gets even more overpowering! I’d daydream, reminiscing the moments I spent there.
In a winter, on one freezing Sunday afternoon, I was served with hot dishes and roast for lunch at my American family’s. Honestly, I can’t quite recall every item at the table except my American mom’s baked beans.
Ah, baked beans! They deserve more attention than being stereotyped as merely canned food. Call me naïve! I never thought that baked beans can be fixed from scratch! As simple as it may seem, for an Asian city girl who grew up with canned ones, my American mom’s baked beans blew me away. Hers tasted sweet, with a nice warm tone from the ketchup, molasses and mustard. I think she threw in quite a handful of finely diced potatoes, which helped thicken up the sauce. Nice!
Missing my American family and getting hit by my sudden cravings for good baked beans, I went around trying my luck in search of the right beans for my baked beans. Here’s what I’d learned: don’t use canned beans — use dried beans! (Duh!)
For my first batch of baked beans, to lessen my work and to save cost, I bought canned red kidney beans. A bad move? You betcha! The absence of that intense earthy flavor that characterizes most beans left me with discontent. I was unable to resign myself to the consequence my unwise decision had brought.
On the other hand, to cook and permeate them thoroughly with flavors, the beans are baked for very long hours. Alas, for a poor freshie like me, that very method of cooking isn’t fiscally feasible. My electric bill skyrocketed in the same month! (Ouch!)
My appetite for baked beans remained unsatisfied. To quell the uneasiness in me, I set off to make another batch.
What I have not told you, though, is I didn’t follow in my American mom’s footsteps. Learning from my mistakes, I referred to a couple of recipes and went my own way. Eventually, I was rewarded with a huge pot of Boston baked beans without much effort invested. Instead of in the oven, everything was done on the stove.
Boston baked beans are authentically American. They are so Bostonian now that the city itself has been nicknamed the “Beantown.” No ketchup is used. Instead, the beans are sweetened purely with molasses, and so they look darker. Other ingredients such as mustard, onion and cured pork help zest things up, too.
However, my Boston baked beans do have one thing in common with my American mom’s. Remembering the pinto beans I saw in her pantry, which almost always wind up as refried beans in her family’s tacos, I followed suit. So, ours are essentially baked pinto beans. Sounds Tex-Mex, huh? (Haha!)
How time flies! I’ve left America for 14 months! Continuing with my tradition of a virtual celebration, I’d like to share my Boston baked beans at the Thanksgiving table this holiday season.
|Thanksgiving 2008 with my American sister Abbi and her family — my last Thanksgiving dinner in America|
Just last weekend, I was lucky to have been able to catch up briefly with my American sister Keren. “We all miss you,” she said. “Serious?” I asked. “Of course, you’ve been part of our lives,” she answered. Hey, Keren! Ya know what, you just made Pei-Lin cry!
I’m no American, but the country and its people were part of my life for close to 3 years. I’m not physically in America anymore, but my thoughts are always with my folks back there. They always stood by me emotionally. It’s tough to imagine going through all the emotional setbacks alone back then.
This year, Thanksgiving falls on Nov 25. To all my “family” and friends back in the States, and to anyone who celebrates this special occasion, happy Thanksgiving! To all my readers, happy Thanksgiving too! Thank you for being supportive despite the fact that it’s getting harder and harder for me to write more frequently! You guys rock!
Boston Baked Beans
Adapted from “The James Beard Cookbook,” by James Beard
Originally published with The Arsenal, by Amanda Hesser
In The New York Times; on March 26, 2006
* I made a huge batch of the baked beans to freeze so I could bring to work for lunch throughout the week. I bet you’d scale down the recipe since most of you don’t have the habit of cooking in bulk. *
* Cooking is a live science. Adjust the seasonings to taste! *
6 cups dried navy beans
* I used dried pinto beans. *
Salt — to taste
3 large onions — peeled and washed to clean
400 ~ 500 g spareribs/ lean pork with rind on/ or salt-cured pork e.g. bacon
* Bacon gives the baked beans a pleasant smoky flavor. *
4 Tbsp dry mustard
2 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper — or to taste
3 dried bay leaves
1/4 ~ 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups molasses
* Not blackstrap molasses! *
Salt — to taste
- Soak the beans in enough water overnight. After soaking, you should get about 12 cups of beans.
- Drain the beans the next day before cooking, and place them in a large pot that can be covered later. Add enough salt and enough room-temperature water to cover 2 inches above the beans. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Then with the lid on, lower the heat to simmer the mixture gently and cook till the beans are barely tender. Stir occasionally. Check every so often, adding more boiling water to keep the beans covered as necessary. Once the beans have gotten barely tender, drain well and set them aside.
- In the bottom of another large pot, which can be covered later, place the peeled onions — yes, whole — and the pork. Spread the beans on top.
- Mix together (A) and pour over the beans. Pour in just enough boiling water to cover the beans, and put the lid on. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Once it’s boiling, lower the heat to let the mixture simmer gently, till the beans are tender but not falling apart. Check occasionally, adding more boiling water to keep the beans covered as necessary.
- Uncover the pot, season the beans with salt. Continue to cook the beans, without additional water, till the sauce has somewhat thickened and caramelized. Monitor the mixture; or else, you may end up with a pot of dry beans!
- Serve immediately for hot or warm baked beans, or let cool to room temperature before serving if that’s what you prefer.