By Gary Lloyd
PINSON — A month in advance of the Alabama Butterbean Festival in Pinson, Bridget Kuhne is nervous.
She’s trying to focus on everything she has to do. There are banners to unfold, two-page supply lists to check off, volunteers to round up. The planning can be overwhelming.
Kuhne isn’t even taking into account the cooking of the butterbeans for the ninth annual festival, held over the weekend in Pinson’s downtown district. From beginning to end, it’s quite a process.
The butterbeans come from the California Lime Bean Growers’ Association, on a boat to Mobile. This year, an Old Dominion Freight Line truck brought them up from Mobile. The 6,800 pounds of beans came in one conference-room-table-size bag, something Clay-Pinson Chamber of Commerce Director Ronnie Dixon believes the men on “Deadliest Catch” could use to fish for king crabs in the Bering Sea.
Dixon then borrowed a forklift from Mission Possible Bargain Center in Pinson to lift the load of China Doll beans, and he separated them into 100-pound totes so they could be managed and distributed. Solid Rock Church, Bradford Sanctuary of Praise and the Pinson Valley Band Boosters got 500 pounds each. They cooked a little more than half of that over the weekend, and the rest will be sold as part of their fundraisers. Sandy Ragland, whose husband, Larry, is the pastor at Solid Rock Church, always helps out. Her favorite part?
“The people,” she said. “Seeing the people, talking to the people, watching the children. Just having that community feel, it’s great.”
In 2007, there were 10 people cooking 100 pounds of beans in advance of the festival. There was too much inconsistency, too many recipes. Kuhne decided to take on cooking 100 pounds herself.
“Not even knowing what I was getting into,” Kuhne said.
This was before a commercial kitchen was used to prepare the beans. She cooked 12 pounds of beans per night for a week leading up to the festival. Cooking that many beans wasn’t the problem. It was moving them all around and storing them. The Kuhne family actually brought their whole freezer to the festival one year, filled with beans. It’s gotten easier since then.
“We had a taste of what it was all about,” Kuhne said.
This year, Kuhne did all her planning and cooked nearly 100 pounds of beans here and there leading up to the event. She started last Monday, cooking up the first 100 pounds of frozen beans beginning at 7:30 a.m. and refrigerating them, once completed, at 9:30 p.m. She used a commercial kitchen and cooked six full pots at a time, accounting for roughly six pounds of beans per pot. The Jefferson County Health Department regulates the cooking of the beans to make sure everything is handled, cooked and served properly.
At the festival, an 80-quart pot is what the butterbeans were served from. If it wasn’t full at the beginning, the cooks were “working our tails off to get the beans hot to the proper temperature,” Kuhne said. Had they gotten behind, the line for butterbeans would have extended 20 people deep.
The big pot, the one attendants got their picture taken in front of, is 6 feet tall and 8 feet in circumference. It was engineered to hold roughly 7,500 pounds. There are 1,500 pounds of beans dumped inside it, and 1,500 gallons of water. The pot weighs about 750 pounds, Dixon estimates.
“I can stand in the pot,” he said.
The 2010 festival was highlighted by Guinness World Records’ official recognition of the world’s largest pot of baked beans, which was 1,010.65 gallons. There was no chance this year that record was going to be broken. It may never be.
“We won’t even try again,” Dixon said. “Until somebody else breaks it, we won’t try it again. If we do, we’re going to have to come up with some kind of motorized agitator and all that to keep (the butterbeans) from scorching. The pot is just too big.”
In 2010, four or five people stirred the beans for 72 continuous hours. There were eight fryers underneath the pot, which produced some hot spots.
In that massive pot, it takes four or five hours to get the beans to the proper serving temperature. To ensure beans were ready when people arrived for the second day of the event, Kuhne for the last two years spent the night at a nearby church, got up at 3 a.m. and started heating up beans at 3:30 a.m.
Every year about a week before the festival, Kuhne thinks about all the work she’s done leading up to it. The planning is overwhelming. All those beans are heavy. She tells herself she won’t be doing this all again next year.
“But when the festival comes it’s so exciting seeing all the people and everybody in unity,” she said. “When you have everybody working together it’s just so fun. You don’t even think about the work it took to prepare and plan beforehand. It’s so worth it for that moment.”
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.