Evolution of a Dish
By: Katherine Perry
There’s a quiz section in my favorite new, old cookbook, Imogene Wolcott’s 1939’s The New England Yankee Cookbook, called “R U A YANKEE COOK?”. I’ve been theorizing that right now we’re having a colonial revival revival, at least in the kitchen–I’m going to leave it to some plucky young grad student to explore the nostalgic draw and resurgence of abbreviations in popular culture, but please KIT about what you find. Back to the quiz. I wasn’t particularly troubled to find I do not know what “garden sass”, “Slip-gut” or “huff juffs” are. I am not sorry I cannot repeat the verse in Yankee Doodle that mentions Hasty Pudding, and I wouldn’t know, nor do I intend to learn, what to do with a piggin, skeel or a losset. And though I don’t have any idea what it means, I now plan to prolifically misuse the mysterious Yankee exhortation “Give her honest measure, but don’t kick the salt!” I was a bit ashamed, however, that as a lifelong New Englander, I was searching the book for a regional staple I had never made, never tasted, and really knew nothing about: Boston Brown Bread.
While many in my parents’ generation tell me they grew up eating Brown Bread and baked beans for Saturday and Sunday suppers, this particular dish never showed up on any table or menu I encountered. The closest I got was finding a can of the apparently quite famous B&M Brown Bread in a grocery store. “Bread in can!” I thought, amused and totally confused. “What will they think of next?” Of course, they thought of it quite a long time ago, though perhaps not as long as some today believe. Steamed Boston Brown Bread, the sweet, dense, often raisin-studded, cylinder we (or at least some of us) know today, evolved from a much less decadent Brown Bread. The staple bread of Colonial New England when wheat was scarce was a rye and corn meal bread, called by the names Brown Bread, Rye and Indian, or commonly, the now wince-worthy “Ryanijun.” After the Erie Canal opened and wheat flour became more readily available in New England, it was added to the mix with the others in equal parts for “Thirded Bread.” Tough, hearty and baked, these classic brown breads underwent a transformation into the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an America nostalgic for “Old New England” collided with rich Victorian tastes. The rustic loaf became mightily molasses’d, and often softly steamed and fruited like a pudding. (New England thrift appears to be at work when cooks start reusing coffee cans as pudding tins, for the signature Boston Brown Bread mold). This bread was ready for either the dinner or dessert plate. Its link with Saturday or Sunday supper appears to be religious; prohibited from cooking on Sundays, observant New England households would cook up baked beans and brown bread, which kept well, on Saturday and enjoy them through the following days.
But today, barring searching for a can on your supermarket shelf, you’ll likely have to make your own or seek out one of the few places that still makes Boston Brown Bread. Luckily, I did some of the leg work for you.
O’Brien’s Bakery in Quincy has an Irish name, is run by a third generation German baker, and is known for its Swedish specialties. It makes everything from Seeded Irish bread, to dog bones, to something called “Crispos” (I believe their own invention, a sort of turnover with an oat and rice crispy crust). And Boston Brown Bread.
Brian Jackle, President and owner of O’Brien’s bakery, is one of those who grew up with the bread. “Every Saturday, we always had it. And we’re an old-fashioned bakery and this is a very heavy, heavy old-fashioned molasses bread. Mine is a lot different from the bread you get in a can in a supermarket. That’s kind of light; mine is not. Mine weighs a lot.”
And I’m apparently simply not on the ground with the Brown Bread scene, because O’Brien says people are still making it part of their dining traditions:
“It’s comfort food, it’s rich, it’s a tradition that New Englander’s have. And we make a lot of it.”
He doesn’t want to give out his full recipe (but the ingredients and method are up for examination), and I don’t blame him. Maybe it’s the infatuation of a new dish talking, but his brown bread is a secret I would definitely keep. The melting soft grit of baked polenta, the crumb of moist cake, the salty-sweet depth of rye and molasses; it’s bread, it’s cake, it’s pudding. I don’t know what it is, but it’s enough to make me want to observe the Sabbath.
For my own first attempt, I chose one of two recipes in Wolcott’s book. One was far more detailed and easy to follow, but the other one rhymed.
Boston Brown Bread
Imogene Wolcott’s 1939’s The New England Yankee Cookbook,
“One cup of sweet milk,
One cup of sour,
One cup of corn meal,
One cup of flour
Teaspoon of soda,
Molasses one cup;
Steam for three hours,
Then eat it all up.
A half a teaspoon of salt should also be added even though it does not rhyme.”
Though not completely traditional, I substituted buttermilk for the sour milk that would have naturally occurred as part of the separating and aging of milk before homogenization and pasteurization. And I just happened to have a pudding tin laying around.
Though whoever tells you this loaf will firm up all the way through in three hours is trying to get you to stay in your kitchen all day, checking and rechecking a soggy bog of bread.
I let this steam for six hours, and then took the lid off to finish it in the oven for an hour. It turns out I don’t have the patience of a Puritian, or even a re-imagined Victorian Puritian. But at the end of the (literally, the end of a long steaming) day, I did have a loaf of good Brown Bread.
I paired this with a 1881 recipe for New England Baked Beans from Aunt Mary’s New England Cook Book. And there it was: savory and sweet.
And just a little bittersweet, thinking of all the snowy mornings I’ve missed without brown bread and beans. But that’s history I’m not likely to repeat.
O’Brien’s Bakery’s Boston Brown Bread
(ingredients and cooking method. Do with it what you can!)
- Brown sugar
- Baking soda
- Bread Crumbs
- Corn Meal
- Whole wheat flour
- Bread flour
- Rye flour
- Fresh Eggs
Put batter in coffee cans and seal. Set the cans in baking pans and fill pans with water about an inch of the way the cans. Bake in oven until set.
Katherine Perry is a radio reporter based at WATD-FM in Marshfield. Before she entered journalism, Katherine worked just about every food industry job: from selling specialty spices, to line cook, to cheesemonger. Since setting down the spatula and taking up the microphone, she’s found that when she’s got a choice about what to cover, she invariably chooses the edible topic. Right now, she’s absorbed in New England culinary history and is delving into the area’s delicious past.