Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Ray Routhier email@example.com
PORTLAND -- When Conrad Lausier first uttered the words "watch yourself" to me, I thought he was being a little overly cautious.
I mean, he was taking me through the B&M Baked Beans factory on the edge of Casco Bay in Portland. How dangerous could baking beans be?
But within minutes, I saw a 900-pound bean pot, full of freshly baked beans, flying toward me. Literally.
At B&M, the bean pots are suspended from above, and move around the factory on a system of overhead rails and pullies. Some pots hang only a few feet off the floor, and others are head high, depending on where they are headed.
At one point, I was standing a little too close to where the bean pots get tugged from one of the 75 or so brick ovens to a long draining trough. But I heard Lausier's "watch yourself" again, and quickly stepped out of the way.
"You've got to be careful, things move pretty fast up here," said Lausier, 56, of North Yarmouth, who has been a baker at B&M for 38 years. "But it's organized; everybody knows what they're doing."
Everybody but me.
The B&M plant, a Portland landmark that's visible from Interstate 295 in the city's eastern end, is a five-story brick factory built in 1913. The business itself, Burnham & Morrill Co., began in 1867.
The factory has a classic, old-fashioned look on the outside, and I was fairly surprised to find the inside old-fashioned and decidedly low-tech.
The bean pots are made of dark steel, and workers suspend them with giant chains and hooks. At various points, large steel harnesses are used to support the pots.
Some of the rail systems have electricity, so a worker can push a control wired to the rail and move the pot back and forth, or up and down. But on other sections of the rails, workers tug or shove the giant pots to where they are supposed to go.
The ovens are lined up side-by side, in two rows. The older ones are brick inside and out. Some of the newer ones are metal on the outside and brick on the inside. All have giant metal lids that have to be lifted off with a hook and chain attached to the overhead rail system.
Before entering the baking area, I had to put on a hair net, though I have very little hair. I also had to put on a beard net, which I didn't know existed.
As Lausier showed me the basics of the baker's job, I realized it was all about movement. A sort of bean ballet.
The baker gets a pot of beans that have been blanched and "sauced" with molasses, sugar, mustard and other ingredients. Lausier had me grab a push-button control attached by a cord to the overhead railing and guide one of the pots down the row of ovens, past maybe 20 of them, until we found an open one.
After lowering the pot into the steaming hot oven (450 degrees) I climbed up on a moving step stool -- it glides on a railing attached to the fronts of the ovens -- and lowered the pot into it. Then I grabbed a shovel-sized stirring implement and began to stir.
Another baker, John Hansen, showed me the proper technique, facing the back of the shovel down into the pot and lodging the handle against the opening of the oven for leverage.
"Just go halfway down and turn the beans over a couple times, then put it all the way at the bottom and bring some beans forward," said Hansen, a 36-year baker. "Then level them off a little."
(Continued on page 2)