« Back to Books

The Truth about Baked Beans

An Edible History of New England

Meg Muckenhoupt

“Compelling.” New England Today

Meg Muckenhoupt begins with a simple question: When did Bostonians start making Boston Baked Beans? Storekeepers in Faneuil Hall and Duck Tour guides may tell you that the Pilgrims learned a recipe for beans with maple syrup and bear fat from Native Americans, but in fact, the recipe for Boston Baked Beans is the result of a conscious effort in the late nineteenth century to create New England foods. New England foods were selected and resourcefully reinvented from fanciful stories about what English colonists cooked prior to the American revolution—while pointedly ignoring the foods cooked by contemporary New Englanders, especially the large immigrant populations who were powering industry and taking over farms around the region.

The Truth about Baked Beans explores New England’s culinary myths and reality through some of the region’s most famous foods: baked beans, brown bread, clams, cod and lobster, maple syrup, pies, and Yankee pot roast. From 1870 to 1920, the idea of New England food was carefully constructed in magazines, newspapers, and cookbooks, often through fictitious and sometimes bizarre origin stories touted as time-honored American legends. This toothsome volume reveals the effort that went into the creation of these foods, and lets us begin to reclaim the culinary heritage of immigrant New England—the French Canadians, Irish, Italians, Portuguese, Polish, indigenous people, African-Americans, and other New Englanders whose culinary contributions were erased from this version of New England food. Complete with historic and contemporary recipes, The Truth about Baked Beans delves into the surprising history of this curious cuisine, explaining why and how “New England food” actually came to be.

Meg Muckenhoupt (@megmuck) is a freelance writer and author of Cabbage: A Global History, among other books. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBoston Magazine, and the Time Out Boston guide; her book Boston Gardens and Green Spaces (Union Park Press, 2010) is a Boston Globe Local Bestseller.


Like a carving knife cutting up a Thanksgiving turkey, Muckenhoupt deftly takes apart legends about New England cuisine. Showing us the recent and invented ‘traditions’ about all sorts of ye olde foods from Boston Baked Beans to Cranberry Sauce, Muckenhoupt reveals the multi-ethnic New England behind the Yankee image; the real-world fish-sticks as well as the pseudo-traditional clambake. Thanksgiving will never seem the same. —Paul Freedman, Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, Yale University

With pugnacious wit, Meg Muckenhoupt offers a forceful case for replacing traditional Yankee fare as New England’s definitive cuisine with the ethnic and everyday dishes that New Englanders have actually eat­en for the past century-and-a-half. It’s high time to update the region’s food story and Muckenhoupt’s account kicks off the discussion in lively fashion. It invites, and will doubtless elicit, equally lively rejoinders.” —Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, authors of America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking

“In this very readable and informative account, Meg Muckenhoupt skilfully demonstrates how food can be used to ‘read’ history, illustrating how and why the imagery surrounding iconic foods of this region developed and persisted. Her intertwining of archival data, ethnographic observations, and cultural studies scholarship offers enticing insights into foods frequently used in national celebrations as well as for everyday meals, making this book relevant to anyone interested in American cuisine.” —Lucy Margaret Long, director of the Center for Food and Culture, Bowling Green, Ohio

“A staple of Native American cooking, stewed beans in some form go back well before 1620, but the molasses-sweetened baked beans of Saturday-night memories didn’t appear until the late 1800s, when molasses was cheap and plentiful. (To learn more about the fact-vs.-reality of New England food, check out Meg Muckenhoupt’s compelling new book, The Truth about Baked Beans.)” —Amy Traverso, New England Today

The Truth about Baked Beans
Warning: Undefined variable $book_page_id in /home/alblaf/thelafargeagency.com/wp-content/themes/lafarge_1.0/block-buy-links.php on line 4

Washington Mews Books / NYU Press, August 2020

Meg spilled the beans “at” Brookline Booksmith.

Read the introduction, “What Is New England Food?” (courtesy of NYU Press).

Sample the first 65 pages (courtesy of Google Play Books).

Also by Meg Muckenhoupt

Read about the Edible series from Reaktion Books—more than six dozen titles from Apple to Water

Union Park Press, 2010


Oxford University Press, 1997

American Academy of Sciences Award, “Best Science Books for Junior High and High School Readers,” 1998
Translated into seven languages

“[A] balanced account of Freud’s life, work, and times … Muckenhoupt recounts some of Freud’s famous cases and methods, notably, allowing patients to use free association. [A] good introduction to a still-controversial figure.” Kirkus


Oxford University Press, 2004

“Muckenhoupt references several personal situations from Dix’s life [and] crusade to document atrocities in the care of the mentally ill, present the information to legislators, and lobby for change. Numerous black-and-white illustrations and primary sources enhance the clear text.” School Library Journal