Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Patrick's Day, Police and Boston Baked Beans

I love audiobooks and I find them particularly wonderful when I can't sleep. I can lie quietly with my earbuds and listen to a great novel or history or travel adventure and the insomnia time is never wasted. Sometimes, though, my brain wants something I don't have to focus on, something to just drone in the background while I swim from thought to thought to thought. Music doesn't do this for me because music demands my attention. I've never been one to have music in the background; if it's on, I must listen fully engaged, which makes it difficult to focus on conversations when there's "dinner music" playing.

Anyway, I recently found the perfect background generator for me: a police scanner. Laugh if you will, it's been enlightening. Poking around the iphone app store I found "5-0 Radio" which has scanner feeds from all over the US and the World. I started listening to it last Saturday night, the night of the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. It took awhile to figure out the protocols and get into the rhythms of the exchanges between the dispatchers and the cops, but eventually it could percolate just beyond my consciousness until a particular exchange piqued my interest.

Saturday night there were mostly "male intox" or "female intox" refusing to leave bars or stumbling down the streets making noise or mischief. Later there were "male-female domestics" as the drunks got home and started abusing the family. All the while I was impressed with the calm demeanor of both the dispatchers and the police, and especially with their strict adherence to protocol.

I grew up in a tiny little suburb of Philadelphia where we had maybe four policemen and they mostly parked by the lake and read the paper. During the hippie years they became a little edgy and tended to over-react at the slightest infraction, even once actually shooting at a kid who was caught with a joint and climbed a tree to get away from them. Luckily they didn't kill him, but suburban cops do tend to freak out whenever something interrupts their coffee and donuts. Yes, it's a cliche but it's true.

About ten years ago I was on a criminal jury in an insurance fraud case. The owner of a motel and restaurant had hired a man to run the restaurant. One morning the owner arrived and found that all of the big restaurant equipment was gone. He asked the manager what happened and was told it must have been stolen. The police and insurance company were called. In the investigation it was discovered that the manager sold the equipment to a broker and pocketed the money. When he got caught he told the police that it was a scheme cooked up by the owner. Turned out the manager had a criminal record of theft and fraud, yet he was -- except for the police -- the only witness against the owner who happened to be Jain, an adherent of one of the world's most peaceful religions. There was no evidence against the defendant.

The trial lasted a few days and when we finally received our instructions and went to the jury room, we immediately called for a vote. It appeared just from looking at each other that we might have a quick not-guilty vote and get out of there. One member of the jury objected to the quick vote, saying that she was convinced that the owner was guilty. When we asked what made her think that, she said she was the daughter and sister of police officers, and that police wouldn't have arrested the defendant if he weren't guilty. For the next two days eleven people tried to convince this one girl that there was no evidence against the defendant and that the police picked the wrong guy to try to convict. Eventually we prevailed, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth for Pittsburgh police.

Things have died down from the St. Patrick's Day festivities and last night as I lay awake trying to adjust to daylight savings I tuned in again to the Pittsburgh public safety channel. It was a quiet night, a few burglar alarms. A break-in. An attempted suicide. A couple of neighborhood parking disputes. All conducted in the calm, reasonable tones that I'm finding restful and reassuring.

So I say hats off to our public safety workers, the police, the EMTs, the fire fighters. They may not be perfect, sometimes they're over-zealous, but it's comforting to know they're out there, watching over us, keeping us safe. And though they're not mostly Irish any more, in their honor we're having Boston Baked Beans and Boston Brown Bread.

Boston Baked Beans

1 lb. navy beans, soaked in water to cover for 8 hours or overnight
3 T. olive oil
1 large sweet onion, quartered and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup dark molasses
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 T. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. cayenne
2 tsp. tamari
1 tsp. liquid smoke
1 bay leaves
1 tesp. salt
freshly cracked pepper

Cook the beans until barely tender. Drain and save the cooking water.

Caramelize the onion in the olive oil. Add the rest of the ingredients and some of the bean water. Add the beans, stir to combine then put in an oiled bean pot or casserole with enough of the bean water to just come up to the level of the beans. Bake in a slow oven (300 F) for 5 or 6 hours, adding liquid as necessary so the beans don't dry out.

Jack added some cooked ham to his beans. You could also add bacon or ham while the beans are cooking, but they're very tasty just as they are. 

Boston Brown Bread

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rye flour
1 cup cornmeal
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup dark molasses
2 cups milk
2/3 cup dried currants


  1. Hey, Marce....I have just become a follower...and I am going to work on adding your recipes to my collection......this will be my Sunday venture...as my nights don't allow for a lot of cooking time....

    thanks ! this'll be fun !


  2. I can't have music in the background either nor radio except for the weather forecast, which I find calming. It is a sign that the world isn't completely nuts after all.