WEST WARWICK — Hank Mayer was watching a cooking program on TV one Sunday afternoon when a recipe appeared that he just had to try.
“I had to watch it again and write everything down quick, quick, quick,” Mayer recalled Thursday, sitting behind an aluminum tray of his homemade baked beans.
The 15-ingredient recipe features bratwurst, bacon, barbecue sauce, tomatoes and three kinds of beans. It takes Mayer around three hours to prepare, and was an obvious favorite during a baked bean cook-off this week at the West Warwick Housing Authority.
Stephen O’Rourke, executive director of the West Warwick Housing Authority, said he tries to arrange gatherings like Thursday’s baked bean cook-off and last year’s chili challenge at least twice annually.
“This is just a fun event,” said O’Rourke, who added that, unlike the numerous informational events hosted regularly by the housing authority, the event this week was strictly social.
Still, as residents chatted with each other and told jokes over corn bread and warm baked beans, the benefits of participating in such an event were clear.
“Some people come in, they’re isolated,” O’Rourke said, adding that the cook-off was an opportunity for residents to “rub shoulders, get familiar with some of their neighbors.”
Since arriving at the housing authority as its executive director, O’Rourke has made a strong effort to bring residents together as a community.
“There’s constant churn in the housing industry, new neighbors all the time, so this welcomes some of the new people as part of the community,” added O’Rourke, who sat Thursday with Tyler Legault, a maintenance employee, and resident Anna Ryan on the judging panel.
Seven housing authority residents competed in the cook-off, each bringing to the table his or her own unique recipe. Some bean preparations featured meat, others were vegetarian; some were passed down through generations, while others, like Mayer’s, were learned more recently.
For Cheryl Koerner, the competition was a chance to dish out a favorite family recipe.
“I put a lot of love in it,” said Koerner, who was taught the recipe by her mom when she was a teenager. “I love to make it.”
Koerner stood behind a crock of her family’s baked beans as residents made their way through the stations to taste what each had to offer.
The sweet aroma of brown sugar and molasses swirled in the air with the smoky scents of bacon and barbecue.
When the time came for the judges to choose a winner, it was somewhat of a toss-up.
For Ryan, she was torn between two.
Ryan said her preference generally is for a recipe that combines subtle sweetness with hints of barbecue flavor. And Debbie Bridgmon’s recipe, Ryan said, “absolutely” did that.
“They’re just traditional, excellent baked beans,” Ryan said, a stack of empty sample cups on the table in front of her.
Legault, meanwhile, said after sampling each recipe that he was drawn to a dish aptly called “add some spice to your life” baked beans.
“I like spicy stuff, and it had a certain kick to it,” Legault said of the preparation, which featured chili peppers, hot Italian sausage and chipotle ketchup.
But while different baked bean entries stood out to each of the judges, there was one that they all agreed was delicious — the winner, in their eyes, was Mayer.
“His was so different,” Ryan said of Mayer’s baked beans, “and the more I ate of it, the more I liked it.”
Mayer’s recipe was also a top contender among his fellow residents, coming in second place in the people’s choice category, falling only to Bridgmon’s family recipe.
Passed down to her by her dad, Bridgmon’s recipe is sweet with a little bite, featuring classic flavors like hickory.
Bridgmon said she felt honored to have been able to share her dad’s recipe and to have received such a positive response to it.
“I miss my dad,” she said, as she recalled memories of eating his baked beans as a child. “He was a fantastic cook.”
Although just two of the seven entries were named winners, the empty crockpots lining the room indicated that they were all much enjoyed.
“Every single one of them was very good, I’d eat them all again on a Saturday night or Sunday morning,” O’Rourke said, adding that he looks forward to the next food-centric event — he’s thinking a meatball contest.
“We never had this stuff before,” Ryan said of the cook-off.
A resident of the West Warwick Housing Authority since 2013, Ryan remembers well what life was like under the housing authority’s previous management. The difference between then and now, she said, is like night and day.
“They care about our quality of life and they do so many things to try to help us,” she said, as residents mingled and enjoyed hot dogs and seven different types of baked beans. “They treat us like we’re people.”