In Dallas, a town that religiously savors its restaurants and its celebrities, chef Dean Fearing is everybody’s darling. Within the opulent Renaissance-Italianate sanctuary of the Mansion on Turtle Creek, this reigning priest of Southwestern Cuisine ministers to a star-struck congregation of gastronomes and ravening socialites. Dallasites love to drop his name (“Dean was telling me just the other day…”), and they love to drop his dishes (Have you tried Dean’s lobster taco with yellow tomato salsa yet?”). Lately they love to drop the title of his just-published culinary gospel, The Mansion on Turtle Creek Cookbook, surely the most aggressively modern recipe collection in Texas history. It is rife with high-concept regional conceits: smoked bell-pepper sauces, avant-garde salsas and relishes, brave new reworkings of old ideas. But what, pray tell, is that…that throwback doing on page 114, sticking out like a Moon Pie at a White House banquet? Dubbed “Granny Fearing’s Kentucky Baked Beans,” the recipe calls for an entire bottle of ketchup, a spoonful of ballpark mustard, and a jolt of commercial pickle juice. As it happens, the formula has less to do with chef Fearing’s palate than with his soul.
Fearing’s relationship to his late grandmother’s beans is nothing short of Proustian. To the man on the street, they’re just canned pork and beans so heavily doctored they yield a sort of high-octane bean marmalade, the source of a furtive, childlike pleasure (after all, doesn’t every family have such a recipe lurking in its files?). But to Fearing, those outrageous beans are a key that unlocks memory and time itself, as humble and as potent as Proust’s bite of petite madeleine soaked in weak tea. “The smell alone brings back so many things,” says Fearing. It conjures up Sunday afternoons at his paternal grandparents’ house in Ashland, Kentucky, when the unmistakable baked-bean essence of bacon and onion and caramelizing sugar would smite young Dean as he arrived for the big family gatherings of which the beans were an invariable mainstay. It remains his strongest link with his grandmother, who died when Dean was eight or nine years old. Put the question to him unexpectedly, and he may be hard-pressed to remember her given name, but he remembers with vivid exactitude the aroma and flavor of her beans, the way the crowning layer of bacon would be “crisp on top and still kind of wobbly on the bottom” after three or four hours of slow, deliberate cooking. He recalls the ritual configuration of the table where his grandmother’s feast was laid, with its platter of fried chicken, the thick porcelain casserole of baked beans, the expansive relish tray of carrots, celery, cantaloupe, sliced tomatoes, and tiny gherkin pickles fished from the same jar that furnished the beans’ key ingredient. To the grown-up Fearing, the beans stand for the whole world of those gatherings—the warmth, the nurture, the connectedness, the sense of celebration. The dish has exerted its power over the chef for three decades and shows no signs of loosing its hold on him.
Indeed, to Fearing the beans have come to prefigure his metamorphosis into Mr. Southwestern Cuisine. He speculates half-jokingly that his early vision of Texas-style tortilla chips and bean dip was the snack he would engineer to stave off predinner hunger pangs at Granny’s house. Standing on tiptoe, little Dean would carefully maneuver a bowl of Lay’s potato chips alongside the just-finished baked beans. “I’d just dip the chips in the beans, and the fun part was hoping I’d get a piece of that bacon. That was the best,” recalls Fearing. Nowadays his version of this treat is the Mansion’s elegantly slender black-bean nachos; Granny’s beans keep fast company with a high-toned spread of grilled spring chickens and two different smoked pepper sauces, plus a red-onion-and-poblano relish. Middlebrow though they be (“a very traditional American family item” is how Fearing delicately puts it), the beans strike a chord in the trendy clientele at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. It’s a good bet that most of them ate some version of the beans while growing up and find Fearing’s rendition oddly comforting, even in the context of a $75 dinner.
It is significant that Fearing, one of those young Turks whose war cry is innovation and for whom tinkering is a way of life, now regards his granny’s original formula as holy, inviolable. “When I was in school, I tried to make the recipe more sophisticated by sautéing the onions,” he admits, laughing at his own presumption. “It changes it. You need that raw-onion edge. You need that pickle juice. I may twist a lot of old Southern and Kentucky recipes around, but with this one, no.” Mansion guests and cookbook dabblers are getting the recipe just the way it was handed down to Fearing’s aunt, who handed it down to Dean with the admonition that only Heinz’s ketchup would do. “Because it’s sweeter,” chortles Fearing unrepentantly. “God, you could serve those beans for dessert, there’s so much sugar in them.”
When it came time to publish his cookbook, Fearing knew that the beans must have their day. “It was something I personally wanted to do,” he explains. He kept his plan to include them a secret from his family, intending it as a surprise homage to his grandmother and to his aunt, who died several years ago. “When my mom saw the recipe in print, oh, golly, tears, everything,” says Fearing. “It was really touching. The family just couldn’t get over it. They kept marveling, ‘They actually let you put this in there?’”
To Fearing it was only right. “Truly, timewise it has to be my favorite recipe,” he confesses. To this day, he serves the beans when he hosts small gatherings at home. By now, his guests must associate the beans with Dean in much the same way that he connects them with his family. “Everyone who eats them has three or four helpings, I swear,” Fearing says. “People are always asking to take them home with them.” As for Dean, the recipe for the beans is a living thing stashed firmly away in his own private heart. As long as he has it, and the remembrance it unfolds, he can go home again.