Memorial Day weekend is upon us! Which means two things: Public swimming pools are opening throughout the four-seasons parts of our great nation; and, if you haven’t been invited to a Memorial Day cookout, it turns out no one likes you very much. Hey, join the club, pal. Long summer weekends are for cookouts. Maybe you could throw one of your own, you know?
Maybe people would like you more—maybe you’d get invited to more cookouts—if you could be depended upon to bring more to these shindigs than your “charm” and “wit” and “frankly disturbingly vast catalogue of terrible dad jokes.” Maybe people would like you a lot if you would bring something hearty, and rich, and complex, and versatile, that you made yourself. On the other hand, probably they would still notice that you’re not wearing any pants over yesterday’s undies. Dammit.
Maybe bringing a delicious dish to these cookouts would be less of a painful ordeal for you if you could check all the right boxes with a recipe that is cheap, and easy, and is made in a single vessel, and requires exactly zero special cooking skills or equipment. My friend, have I got a solution for you: You should whip up a batch of barbecue beans. Beans! Delicious? Sure. Filling? Absolutely. Easy? As hell. Cheap? Buddy, beans aren’t the preferred foodstuff of cartoon hobos for nothing. And beans are good! Well, these beans. These are some good fuckin’ beans. No one will ever turn down these beans. Let’s do it.
Here’s your shopping list, some of which you will already have floating around your kitchen: a couple cans of beans; a big yellow onion; a couple hot peppers; some bacon; some ketchup; some molasses; some brown mustard; whatever you like for hot sauce; one or two spices.
This is a bean dish, and that means two things: You’re gonna have to think about what kind of beans to use, and you’re going to fart like a grazing cow after eating some. But before we talk beans, let’s talk pork. Barbecue beans are another preparation in a long, unheralded, continent- and culture-spanning human tradition we might call “pork and beans.” Perhaps the humblest in this line is the weirdly orange colored, startlingly sweet can of Campbell’s Pork & Beans, but let’s be fair: Beans are a human diet staple because they are cheap, filling, they store forever in their dried or canned state, they’re remotely versatile, and are remotely nutritious—there is no pork and beans preparation that doesn’t trace its origins to some poor person scrapping together cheap sustenance, because there is no bean preparation that doesn’t do the same.
You can sort of squint and tilt your head and piece together how pork would’ve made its way into bean preparations as otherwise dissimilar as lentil soup and Tuscan beans and frijoles charros and barbecue beans and the shitty can of Campbell’s. Pigs—before Charlotte’s Web and Babe depicted pigs as, basically, Lassie—have long been low-ranking livestock animals. Pig scraps turn up in many of the great, obviously-improvised peasant foods that slowly ascended into broad cultural acceptance: pigs’ feet, and salt pork, and sausage, and bacon, and, yes, barbecue. What I’m saying, here, is a marriage of low-down pig bits and beans, in the record of poor people constructing culinary traditions out of bottom-rung ingredients, is virtually inevitable. Frankly, that this or any pork and beans recipe should include something as rich and not-loaded-with-cartilage-and-toenails as bacon is probably an upward deviation.
This is only part of why you should probably stop short of anything as outrageous as barbecue beans made with pork belly. The larger part is this: Pork is an important part of this recipe, but it is a smaller part. The pork is there to lend a nice meaty background, but the beans are really the star, here. I mean, if you’ve got some leftover pork belly, or leftover pulled pork, or leftover ribs, or leftover glazed ham, fuckin’ go for it! That will be a fine use of leftoevers. If not, let’s resist the urge to turn this into another pork orgy. Ultimately, that will just be a time-consuming and expensive way of making a hot bowl of beans. Buy a package of bacon, and let’s fuckin’ move on already.
For beans, you’re gonna want something on the smallish side. Black beans are fine. Black-eyed peas are fine. Pinto beans are fine. Grab a few cans of whatever beans you like, open them, dump their contents into a colander, and rinse them off with cold water. Mew! Mew mew mew! The mewlers want this to be done with dried beans. Have it your way, mewlers. Feel free to turn a goddamn barbecue beans recipe into a two-day process, and have absolutely no one at the cookout notice without you pointing it out. I used dry beans! Of course you did, Poindexter. Not that soaking and boiling beans is, like, the biggest hassle in the world, but the question is one of returns—we want our thoughtful, hearty bean side dish to be delicious, of course, but it’s still gonna be a side dish at whatever Memorial Day cookout they grace. Let’s keep this all in proper perspective.
While the beans are draining, haul out a heavy-bottomed pot and get it over medium heat. We are going to cook some bacon, now, and so you’re gonna want a plate lined with a couple paper towels nearby. Got it? Okay, now, umm, cook bacon. The bacon doesn’t need to be cooked any particular way, so long as it crisps up a little bit. Cook a lot of bacon, both so that you can eat one or two strips without fucking up the recipe, and because you’re gonna want a lot of bacon in the beans. Remove cooked bacon slices to the paper towels, leaving as much delicious bacon fat in the pot as you can. I wouldn’t be shy about cooking an entire pack of bacon for this, once factoring in that I am a mortal lock to eat at least three strips, and my wife is a mortal lock to eat another two. Aim for somewhere north of eight strips.
Now that all the bacon is cooked and removed to the paper towels, we’re gonna add some vegetation to the bacon fat in the pot. For this you will want to finely chop a big yellow onion, and finely chop a couple hot peppers. Jalepeños are fine, as are Fresnos, or even Serranos. Poblanos are delicious but not hot; habaneros are hot as hell but not delicious, and will probably be too hot for some people. This really isn’t meant to be a hot dish, but the mild heat of the dispersed capsaicin of a couple jalapeños will be welcome. Add your chopped vegetation to the oil and move it around with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. We’re gonna give that stuff a few minutes over heat, so the onion will turn translucent and soften.
When the onion is soft and your kitchen smells like a million bucks, add the beans to the pot, and stir everything around. Also, go ahead and lower the heat to medium low. Not a whole lot going on in that pot, flavor wise. Every step, from here, will be about making the beans delicious. There are basically three parts to this: You are going to add the pork back in; you are going to stir in a batch of your very own bitchin’ barbecue sauce; and you are going to give the beans a while to thicken and reduce, so that they are dark and sticky and smoky and outrageous when you finally dig in.
The bacon should be cooled by now. Test this out by eating several more strips, you glutton. When the bacon is cooled enough that you can handle it, use your hands to crumble it up. We’re not looking for bacon bits, here—we want shreds and crumbles that are big enough that you recognize their meaty, salty chew when they find your teeth. Just squeeze and tear and break up the bacon a little bit, then gather all the bacon pieces and dump them into the pot.
Now, barbecue sauce. Probably you have your own recipe for this. Use that. Or, here: Combine ketchup, molasses, some mustard, some hot sauce, maybe a splash of vinegar, maybe a hit of honey, and maybe a splash of beer in a bowl, and stir it around. Hit it with a dash or two of ground cumin, and a dash or two of smoked or regular paprika. Taste as you go, and add things until you’ve got it where you want it. For this, err a little more on the Kansas City side of things (tomato-y and molasses-y) than the North Carolina side (vinegary), and remember that this mixture isn’t going to be lacquered on chicken thighs, but stirred into a pot of beans—make it a little wetter than the stuff you’d brush onto ribs. Beyond those general and vague tips, follow your nose and tastebuds, unless they lead you into a volcano. You want enough of this stuff that it will fully coat all the beans in the pot, with room to spare. When the sauce is where you want it, dump it into the pot with the beans and stir it in there. Kinda jiggle the pot around so that the beans settle into a flat lake. If the mixture is too dense for that, add a couple splashes of water or chicken stock or beer or whatever. You get the idea. You want the bean mixture to be kinda loose, so that it’ll have some room to reduce without turning into a casserole.
Slap a cover over the beans, lower the heat down to low, and walk away. Everything in the pot is cooked and edible, and so you could dig in right away. For best results, leave the pot alone on the stove over low-ish heat for, what, an hour? Two hours? You’ll want to check on it from time to time, to give it a quick stir to make sure it isn’t caking and charring on the bottom. You’ll also want to keep it basically loose, so add splashes of liquid here and there, as needed. Otherwise, let it do its thing for a while, and you will be rewarded.
Now. I have something to say to you. You could be done, here. You have mixed together some hot bean action, and you have cooked the hot bean action, and you were very patient, and by God you could yank that pot off the heat and ram a spoon down in there and eat some damn beans. In fact, maybe you are done. Maybe you don’t have the juice (or the equipment) for this next, totally optional step. This is Memorial Day weekend, yes? These beans are being served at a cookout, yes? So the beans are going to be near, you know, a grill? A charcoal grill? With charcoal in it? Yes?
If all that is true, and you feel like giving the beans one final hit, so that they will be really special and excellent, haul the beans off the heat, stir in one final splash of liquid, and set the pot down, uncovered, on a vacant grill spot over a medium charcoal fire. Now slap the lid on the grill and give the beans 15 to 20 minutes under there. I swear to you, when you pull the beans off the grill, bubbling and steaming and darkened with charcoal smoke, you will know instantly that this was a good idea, because your nose and tongue will have leapt from your head and down into the pot, never to return.
Serve the beans. First, of course, to yourself. Have a bite. Pretty fuckin’ good, yeah? On their own, on a spoon—pretty goddamn delicious! Hot and hearty, fragrant and spicy, balanced with dark sweetness, with little chewy bits of bacon floating around, and under and around all of it the alluring smoky aroma of a good charcoal fire. Barbecued! Barbecued beans! That taste barbecued!
Nothing at your holiday cookout won’t do well sitting next to a blob of barbecued beans on your paper plate: The beans will be pleasantly sweet next to a heaping mound of potato salad or mac and cheese; and appropriately hefty and substantial next to your pulled pork or chicken thighs; and deliciously spicy next to cole slaw or macaroni salad. And you, my friend, will be the unsung hero of the day, with your cheap all-purpose pork and beans carrying the meal. Nice job.