Full of Beans?
Boston baked beans were invented in the South End. True or false? Who could doubt as reputable a citizen and civil leader as Joseph H. Farren who, in 1941, told the Boston Sunday Post:
The first "Boston’s" were prepared at Parmelee’s in brick ovens at the corner of East Springfield Street. The original ovens were revealed last year during reconstruction work.
According to an 1860 map, Parmelee’s Bakery, with its "ovens of bakery," was located on the East Springfield Street side of Washington Street. It was a family business dating back to 1830 along the Neck. Later it had an address on Chester Park (663 Mass. Ave.) on the corner of what would become Parmelee Street and Parmelee Court homes. Is it possible it invented the famous Boston baked beans?
Distinctive for molasses, salt pork and a long baking time, Boston baked beans were traditionally cooked in a bean pot in a brick oven. No one knows when the first recipe appeared in a cookbook. Perhaps 1855, perhaps 1832. The term itself apparently dates to the 1850s. Some historians think Native Americans, using maple syrup instead of molasses, invented them. Some think they were initially a North African Sephardic dish.
Joe Farren knew his beans. By 1941, he had lived at 45 East Springfield Street for almost sixty years. He was secretary of the Young Men’s Catholic Association at Boston College High School on East Newton Street, which offered evening classes in accounting, English, civil service, and business for the "Educational and religious improvement of Catholic men over age 18." Later that year, he opened his own civil service school at 543 Mass. Ave., where he taught similar courses that prepared people for Civil Service jobs. The school later moved into South End House (the precursor to United South End Settlements) at 20 Union Park, and he became the settlement house’s assistant treasurer. Albert Boer, in his history of USES, mentions that Farren wrote a history of the South End and was in demand for local history talks.
There was, however, tragedy in Farren’s life. He chaired a Selective Service board during World War II. After his son Joe, Jr., was drafted, East Springfield Street boys teased the other son, John, because surely with a father on the draft board a second son wouldn’t be drafted. Farren’s heart was broken when John enlisted and broken again when he went to France and was killed. The story goes that when the veterans dedicated the corner of East Springfield and Harrison Avenue John C. Farren Square, Farren and his wife were still too upset to attend.
By 1950, Joe Farren, 70, still civic-minded and hard-working, became active in the South End Planning Council, a group of social workers, agency staff, and businessmen who promoted the South End in the years before Urban Renewal. He and other members wrote a letter to the Boston Travelerobjecting to their characterization of the neighborhood as "Boston’s Skid Row." "We claim that more good emanates from this section than from any similar section in the country," they wrote, enumerating the South End’s positive attributes. "Here in less than one square mile are over 200 agencies founded to help our fellow man." Baked beans weren’t mentioned.
Farren was on the planning committee for South End Centennial Week. Elaborate festivities were held that spring and a special newspaper was put out for the occasion. South End Century explained, "It was exactly 100 years ago that the City of Boston arrived at the momentous decision to claim from the ocean, by a filling-in process, that area now known to us as the South End district of Boston." Mayor Hynes, who had grown up on East Lenox Street and gone to South End schools, touted the South End’s diversity: "The thing I remember most about the South End," he said, "is that of the five top students in my fifth grade class, each was of a different creed or racial group." The Centennial was the perfect opportunity to mention the invention of Boston baked beans, but it doesn’t seem to have been included.
In the decade before his death in 1960, Farren was on the committee that held Annual Civic Pride Days in South End parks. They were sponsored by the Planning Committee and involved an impressive number of local groups, from Tobin Funeral Home to the Holy Trinity Drum and Bugle Corps.
When the Friedman family bought 45 East Springfield Street about 1965, the top floors were full of civil service books and religious materials. Mrs. Friedman threw out everything. Out with the trash may have gone Joe Farren’s history of the South End along with proof that Boston baked beans were invented just down the block.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.