Eating My Words: Franks and Beans To Take On the Road

Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden
In college, I took a class on the literature of the Beats. Reading works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti both incited within me all the requisite yearning for hipster freedom and smacked me up against the brick wall of misogyny and male privilege that such freedoms required.

What appealed to me most about On the Road (which turned out to be one of my least favorite of Kerouac’s works) was the survivalist mentality that was required to traverse the country. As a kid, I was a huge fan of books like Little House in the Big Woods and Hatchet because they had descriptions of how to live off the land and prepare food. Somehow, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s hungry trek through the diners, backrooms, and highway shoulders of America struck a similar survivalist chord as those books of my early childhood.

Jack Kerouac's hitchhiking map, via
Unsurprisingly, then, beans, that cheap and filling protein, pop up like truck stop diners throughout On the Road. For me, they’re the reference that most evokes Sal and Dean’s epic trip, from the Los Angeles sidewalks where “you could smell tea, weed, I mean marijuana, floating in the air, together with the chili beans and beer,” to cotton fields outside Fresno where “the stars bent over the little roof; smoke poked from the stovepipe chimney. I smelled mashed beans and chili. The old man growled.” (Part 1, Ch. 13)

Kerouac was a huge Hemingway fan, and, though their settings are quite different, you can certainly see a tip of the hat to the food Nick Adams cooks over his fire near the Big Two-Hearted River—a can each of pork and beans and spaghetti—in their impromptu meals. “Then we had to eat, and didn’t do so till midnight, when we found a nightclub singer in her hotel room who turned an iron upside down on a coat hanger in the wastebasket and warmed up a can of pork and beans.” (Part 2, Ch. 10)

Franks and Beans inspired by On the Road, via
And for me, it’s plain old franks and beans that loomed the largest. “The girls, Babe and Betty, cooked up a snack of beans and franks.” (Part 1, Ch. 9) “We had a farewell meal of franks and beans in a Seventh Avenue Riker’s, and then Dean got on the bus that said Chicago and roared off into the night.” (Part 1, Ch. 1) That semester, I found myself obsessively eating a meal I hadn’t had since preschool, pretending I was digging the stuff out of a can that I’d heated over a fire.

It was my last year of college and I had no idea what I would be doing six months later, or where in the world I would be. Those franks and beans were a message sent out to a future self—a self who might be speeding through Los Angeles or camping in Montana, slugging to-go coffee in New York or wandering down a highway in Louisiana. A message that said, wherever you are, whoever you are, you can eat this and imagine striking out on the road.

Now, ten years later and nowhere I imagined I might be, I’ve only had franks and beans once or twice since that semester. When I made them yesterday, though, while paging through my copy of On the Road from college, I was struck by how particular they smell: the smokiness of the beans and that bite of a hot dog hitting heat. I make my baked beans almost like a chili. While the pot is simmering, I cook the franks in a pan, cut them up and add them to the beans. In this way, I can almost imagine I just opened a tin and am warming my food in the fire, drying out my boots for another day’s journey.

RPGRebecca is a writer living in Philadelphia. When not writing fiction and poetry, she blogs about young adult books at Crunchings & Munchings and copy edits at Hermes Editing. She likes bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and cheese. But mostly cheese.

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  1. Max says

    I cannot believe Casey would let a story about Kerouac be written on her site. I mean, one that was not written by her! Great story, now time to find some beans, franks and tea.

  2. Margalit says

    Coffee, cocoa powder, and bourbon–what great additions to franks and beans! Thanks for the recipe, and the Kerouac reminiscing.