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Horn & Hardart's Baked Beans

Horn & Hardart's Automats played an important role in my life when I was boy in Brooklyn. Early on Sunday, while my mother got her morning to loll in bed, my father would take me, and later my sister and me, for an outing. We went to the Prospect Park zoo, or on one of my father's guided tours of neighborhoods we didn't know, or we'd drive to "The City," usually to eat something my mother would not approve of, or to eat in a place my mother would never go. Hector's Time Square Cafeteria was in that category, Katz's delicatessen on Houston St. (still there and still shabby) was another place she didn't like, and certain Chinatown dives were beyond her understanding, although she wasn't against Chinatown altogether. Most assuredly she would not set foot in an Automat.

It wasn't the food, either. She occasionally bought Horn & Hardart prepared foods to supplement an otherwise homemade dinner. ("Less work for mother," was the advertising slogan for the H&H "retail shops.") It was the whole concept of the restaurant chain that she disliked. Mother wanted service, and the Automat was the original "waiter-less restaurant," as it actually called itself at it's inception after World War I.

The deal at the Automat was that you put nickels in slots on a long wall of glass windowed chrome doors behind which were servings of food. The right number of nickels released the door locks and made accessible things like slices of lemon meringue pie, coconut custard pie, fish cakes I remember liking quite a lot, sandwiches, and, among other "signature" dishes, shallow casseroles of macaroni and cheese and small crocks of baked beans.

Later in my life, the Automat again played an important role. The last Automat, on the corner of 42nd St. and Third Ave., which turned into a GAP only about seven years ago, was right down the street from the Daily News. When things went bad at work, an order of Horn & Hardart macaroni and cheese became my supreme comfort.

I have had and made the recipe for the macaroni and cheese for some time. You can find it on this web-site, in the section called Favorite Radio Recipes.

I remember being fond of the baked beans, as the many people who have requested the recipe from me must be, too. But until last week I had never tried the only recipe I have for it. The recipe is from "The New York Cookbook" by Molly O'Neill (Workman Publishing), who is the food columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Most unfortunately, Molly's recipe is not correct. She has far too much seasoning. The dish would never have been so popular had it as much cayenne and powdered mustard as Molly's. The baking temperature is wrong: At Molly's 250 degrees, a big pot of beans barely cooks. Even the onion in my batch remained crunchy. And , finally, the bean pot should be covered while they cook, an instruction Molly omits.

Here's the correct recipe for Horn & Hardart's baked bean, or at least as close as I can get it. And boy are they good.

Horn & Hardart's Baked Beans
Makes about 7 cups

1 pound great Northern or navy beans, soaked at least 8 hours
1 cup finely minced onion (1 medium onion)
4 slices bacon, diced
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2/3 cup molasses
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups tomato juice
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt

Drain the beans and place them in a large saucepan. Add fresh water to cover the beans by about 1 inch.. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so the beans simmer gently, uncovered. Make sure they are always covered with water and cook them until they're very tender but not falling apart, about 1 hour. When you add the acidic ingredients – molasses, vinegar, and tomato juice – they will firm up again. Drain.

Place the beans in a 3-quart bean pot or casserole. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well.

Bake, covered, in a preheated 300 degree oven for about 6 hours, or until the beans are tender again and colored as brown as the sauce around them. Stir the beans at least once an hour while they cook.

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