Baked Beans Build Community

By Susan Clark, co-author, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home

As we head into town meeting time here in Vermont, it’s time to say a word about food.

The late Weston Cate, a venerable town moderator and historian from East Montpelier, said it most succinctly: “I am convinced that more progress is made in the presence of food than could possibly be made otherwise.”

We know that the best-attended New England town meetings serve food. We also know that while some of us are organizers or orators, others of us build community with different skills entirely – and cooking provides different members of the community a chance to shine.

But there’s more. Professional mediators and facilitators know that “breaking bread” together is also a critical tool for bringing people’s minds closer.

After two people, or a group of people, have talked too long on an issue, eventually they can’t hear each other anymore. Their brains shut down -- it’s just human nature. But when we stop trying to get through to each other, and connect over something else – even if it’s just “Hey, this is good mac and cheese!” -- the listening channels relax and open up again.

Professional facilitators know that they can use all the flip-charts and power-point tools they have, but the real break-throughs often get made during the breaks.

In some communities and organizations that are trying to streamline their meetings for efficiency, sometimes food breaks and potluck dinners fall by the wayside. We lose this opportunity to slow down and connect at our peril. 

When I was working on a book about Vermont town meetings in 2005 (All Those In Favor: Rediscovering The Secrets of Town Meeting and Community), I heard a lot about food. Here’s a comment I received from Patty Haskins, who was Town Clerk in Pittsfield, which is typical of the stories I heard in many Vermont towns:

“Virginia Colton's baked beans are done in an electric cooker right at the Town Hall, and it is a two-day-long process. When you arrive at Town Meeting on Tuesday morning, the meeting room is filled with the aroma and warmth of those baked beans. The potluck luncheon is a wonderful social time for town residents after a long cold winter. Local politicians, reporters and photographers try to make their appearance at Pittsfield Town Meeting shortly before lunch so that they can also partake in the luncheon.”  

Here’s the recipe. Have a great meeting!

Colton Farm Baked Beans

Serves: 75+

Cooking time: 4-5 hours on slow.

This amount is for Town Meeting Dinner.

10 lbs Soldier Beans (notice the “soldier” on each bean)

Sort over, wash, and soak overnight. Then parboil until skins separate.

Add (in same water):

2 qts Grade B maple syrup

4 Tbsp salt

2 Tbsp dry mustard

Stir carefully, then add:

4 large onions, scored down two ways. Place one onion in each corner of cooker.

Score 1 lb. of lean salt pork or slab bacon to the rind and put into the middle of beans in cooker.

Set control at 250 degrees and cook 4-5 hours or until done. Along the last, remove the cover so beans can brown.