Put on a party where you make the main, or you are grilling out, or it is summer and there is meat, and ask people to bring some sides to go with it, and, well, there is one thing that I guarantee you won't get: baked beans.
Baked beans just ain't sexy. People will bring their signature dessert, their potato salad or potato casserole, fruit, or a salad, bread or beer, long before they will commit to baked beans. Even cole slaw, one of the most polarizing barbecue dishes of all time (I love it!) will get takers before those darned beans.
Here's the irony, though. People eat them. Even kids. I was serving high school boys as part of an outdoor lunch a few weeks ago, with BBQ and chips and the like, and when the boys saw the beans, they were like, "Yeah, put some beans on my plate." They just go with grilled or smoked meat, and even picky eaters know it.
That doesn't mean that your Aunt Edna has a recipe that she brags about or that you are willing to walk into a party with the "best beans in the world." Instead, it seems like everyone hopes that someone else takes charge of the beans.
Maybe that's why a Southern chain like Sticky Fingers just opens a can of premade baked beans, heats them up, and serves them as if they are Sticky Finger's own, special beans. At least that's what a server told me one time. People just don't care. They just want some beans or think that they should have some with their ribs.
Which doesn't mean that there aren't great baked bean recipes out there. There are. They probably have bacon layered on top or barbecue meat in them, a special "what is that ingredient" like pickle juice or dry mustard or, maybe, raspberry jam. People who actually make baked beans, make them at home, tend to add all kinds of extras that really do make them special.
I used to simply add sliced hot dogs to mine and my kids, when they were young, would go crazy. A hot dog is tasty, a slice of hot dog simmered in baked bean sauce can be transcendent.
Maybe it's the farting issue. Beans make us fart, so if we bring beans to an event, then we are associated with that eventual farting, and that is not sexy. But black beans, for example, can be kind of sexy, especially if you are dating a vegan. Even pinto beans enjoy a certain elevated status, especially if they are refried in a Mexican restaurant or standing in for baked beans in a BBQ joint as "cowboy beans," soupy and laden with onion and cilantro.
Probably, it is more of a "throwback" issue that makes bringing baked beans somewhere a pariah's choice. Baked beans were around long before blacks or pintos insinuated themselves onto the American bean palate. Baked beans make us think of the Depression and they make us think of the casserole, and neither of those are in vogue these days. It isn't cool to be impoverished (ask the ranks of the American poor), nor is it cool to cook a dish based on ingredients that come out of cans, like the 1950s.
Still, I'm serving barbecue tomorrow night in all its glory--pulled pork, smoked brisket, roasted chicken-- and you can be damn sure that I'm going to have baked beans to go with those offerings. I'll leave the kiwi slices and the "Mom's famous" Mac 'n Cheese to my guests as they make their own statement with their fresh, deliciously-prepared offerings.
I've got a bunch of cans of beans, ready to serve, but which I will doctor with ketchup and mustard and brown sugar and hot sauce and pickle juice and onion and who knows what else? And I'll probably bake them in the oven too long until the thick sauce I started with is but a coating for some Navy Beans prepared somewhere far away. They won't be great. They won't be special. They will be more hit or miss than they will follow some recipe.
But you know what? When they sit, steaming, in a large Pyrex dish as part of a variety of offerings, people will say to themselves, " Yeah, I think I'll have some beans." And my beans will do the job.