Boston Baked Beans' Origins Won't Have You Feeling Patriotic This Fourth Of July

Picnic spread with Boston baked beans
Picnic spread with Boston baked beans - Msphotographic/Getty Images

Often served alongside hot dogs or barbecue ribs, Boston baked beans are an essential Fourth of July side dish at many picnics and gatherings. Even if you're a fan of Boston baked beans, there's a chance you don't know the full story of this dish's history. What you're about to read might change your views of this popular backyard barbecue side.

Molasses gives Boston baked beans their signature sweetness, but in centuries past, its production was the result of slave labor on Caribbean sugar plantations. Colonial-era Boston was a hub of the Triangle Trade, a route that saw barrels of  molasses produced by enslaved people shipped from the Caribbean to New England where they were distilled into rum. Shipments of rum were then carried to Africa and traded for more enslaved workers. Meanwhile, molasses became a pantry staple in American homes in both the North and South.

We are not telling you to boycott Boston baked beans this Fourth of July (or any other time). We only want to emphasize the importance of acknowledging the tragic history behind one of this side dish's key ingredients. The Fourth of July is a ritual celebration of the United States' independence, but for far too long, not all Americans had their freedom.

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Molasses Production Was Built On The Backs Of Enslaved People

Spoonful of dark molasses in jar
Spoonful of dark molasses in jar - Alasdairjames/Getty Images

The Atlantic trading of enslaved people began in the 1520s and lasted until the 1860s. Colonizers of the New World enslaved indigenous people in the Americas and trafficked millions of people from Africa for the purpose of forced labor. The English colonists who settled in Boston enslaved Native Americans as early as 1620. In 1638, the first ship of enslaved Africans sailed into Massachusetts Bay. Through the Triangle Trade, molasses became a major import in the U.S., favored for its versatile, shelf-stable nature.

Boston's early population was primarily made up of Quakers and Puritans, English settlers who brought their traditional recipes with them. Boston baked beans evolved from an English bean-and-bacon pottage recipe that dates back to the Middle Ages. The Quakers hailed from Northern England, where boiling was the preferred cooking method of the day. The Puritans came from Eastern England, an area where much baking was done. These regional techniques likely influenced the way Boston baked beans are prepared and Boston's connection to beans. In 1896, Fannie Merritt-Farmer included a Boston baked beans recipe in her landmark publication, "The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook".

Yet, Boston baked beans wouldn't be uniquely American if not for the inclusion of molasses. The sweet syrup, derived from the sugar cane that was grown, harvested, and processed on Caribbean and South American plantations by enslaved people who were often worked to death. Boston baked beans are a Fourth of July side dish rife with history that should not be forgotten but rather reflected upon and learned from.

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