It’s (almost) summer in Central New York. Can you envision a picnic, barbecue or cookout without Cornell chicken, hot dogs, salt potatoes and baked beans?
If you’re loyal to hometown brands, the hot dogs better be Hofmann’s and the salt potatoes from Hinerwadel’s. And chances are the beans in a casserole next to the platter of grilled corn are Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans, the pride of Mexico, Oswego County.
“Around here, you try serving people any other kind of baked beans and there’s going to be a problem,” says Thomas Connors, owner of Syracuse Crate, a local foods-focused gift box and shipping company whose motto is “a bit of Syracuse delivered to your door.” Syracuse Crate sends Grandma Brown’s beans all over the globe.
Perhaps some of you have written off Grandma Brown’s in favor of a brand that offers baked beans in a host of flavors, including barbecue, and with a vegetarian option. Grandma Brown’s are pasty and bland, you say, and need “doctoring up” to make them more palatable.
For many, that blank canvas is part of the charm of Grandma Brown’s. Empty them into a baking dish. Add some ketchup and mustard, some brown sugar or molasses (or both), caramelized onions and maybe a splash of soy sauce — or a splash of bourbon and barbecue sauce or maple syrup, if you want to get fancy. Top with strips of bacon or crumbled bacon and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until the bacon is cooked and the beans are bubbly. There you have it: a quintessential Central New York side dish, for summer or any other season.
Post a picture of Grandma Brown’s beans to the Nostalgic Syracuse Facebook Group and you’ll receive comments from dozens of transplanted Central New Yorkers who miss Grandma Brown’s, who enlist visitors to bring them some, who stuff them in their suitcases and carry-on bags when they visit our area and who order them online, if needed. (Amazon offers three 16-ounce cans for $16.99, plus shipping.)
“The best baked beans you can buy,” says one member of the group. “Treated like gold in our house,” says another. “Have some in the oven right now,” adds one more.
Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans got their start in 1937, during the Great Depression, when Lulu Brown, of Mexico, began making large pans of baked beans and selling them in local grocery stores. The beans were so well received that her husband, Earl, and her son Robert E. Brown, decided to sell them in Oswego. When Earl Brown died in 1938, Richard Whitney joined the company and it became known as BWB — Brown-Whitney-Brown. The business grew steadily, enough to require a plant, where large amounts of beans could be processed and canned.
On the Nostalgic Syracuse Facebook page, Thomas R. Demperio, a commercial artist now living in Seminole, Fla., says he designed the iconic Grandma Brown’s can label in 1955, while working for the (former) Flack Advertising Agency in Syracuse. The retro-looking yellow and brown label is still in use.
On the front is an image of the whitehaired Grandma (Lulu) Brown and a rectangular red casserole loaded with beans. On the back is the ingredient list (water, navy beans, brown sugar, bacon, salt and baking soda), images of other Grandma Brown’s products, including bean soup with bacon, split pea soup and saucepan beans, and cooking instructions. The beans contain no preservatives, no cholesterol and are gluten-free.
Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans, from all appearances and accounts, is an old-fashioned company. The business is housed in a nondescript building, the color of a navy or cannellini bean, in the village of Mexico. Signage is low-key, with the words Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans in red lettering.
The company has no website, no Facebook or Twitter presence and no Instagram feed with drool-inducing photos and recipes. Its only advertising appears to be positive word of mouth. There is a Grandma Brown’s “appreciation page’’ on Facebook, but it is not managed by or officially associated with the company. A message left at company headquarters seeking input for this story was not returned.
Sandra Brown, the granddaughter of Lulu Brown, is the company’s president, according to James Hotchkiss, deputy mayor of the village of Mexico. Brown and several employees process beans two or three times a week, Hotchkiss says. You can smell them being processed if you’re near the facility, he adds.
According to Hotchkiss, Grandma Brown’s had a booth at the New York State Fair in the early 1950s and sold bean sandwiches for five cents each. Thousands of people lined up for them. The stand lasted just one year, Hotchkiss says, because hot dog and hamburger vendors lost business and threatened to pull out from the fair if Grandma Brown’s returned.
An advertisement in the Sept. 14, 1950, edition of the Syracuse Herald-Journal suggests recreating at home the delicious combination that 71,000 people lined up for at the New York State Fair: Cobakco (Cortland Baking Company) country style bread and Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans.
Present-day bean sandwich devotees suggest spreading the bread with butter or mayonnaise, spooning on the beans and garnishing with ketchup, mustard, thinly sliced onion and vinegar. Leftover “doctored up” Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans are said to make the best bean sandwich of all.
“These are wonderful baked beans, simple and tasty,”’ writes Mr. Dave, the author behind the blog Ridiculous Food Society of Upstate New York. “On their own the beans are great as a side dish, but many people also use them as a starting point for whatever strange and wonderful bean recipes that have been passed down through the generations. I don’t like to futz with them too much. My favorite is to thinly slice in some regular ol’ hot dogs (Stewart’s Deli Dogs in this case) to make a mess of what I have always referred to as Beanies and Weenies.”
Others take Grandma’s beans a step further, adding canned pineapple chunks AND cut-up hot dogs and cooking them on low in a slow cooker for a few hours. Another blogger, the Five-Minute Foodie, likes a breakfast of sunny-side-up eggs, summer tomatoes and basil, with a serving of Grandma Brown’s beans on the side.
Thomas Connors of Syracuse Crate eats the beans as they are, no embellishments, as a wholesome side dish to whatever protein he might be having. Grandma Brown’s beans play a key role in several Syracuse Crate offerings, alongside local favorites like Gianelli sausage, Hofmann franks, Hinerwadel’s salt potatoes, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que Sauce, Buck’s Seasoning and others. Custom orders are accepted.
Connors has one local customer who regularly ships a case of Grandma Brown’s Baked Beans to her son, who lives in Australia. It costs more than $100 to ship them and about two weeks for them to get there.
“It’s unbelievable how tethered people are to those baked beans,” Connors says. “We get these voice mails from people who are so excited to find them in a package. It’s the only product we have that people are so sentimental about.”