Posted on April 29th, 2011
I’ve been nattering on about brown bread lately. And I blame a guy whose last name is Zamboni.
It all began with the advent of nearly all of the episodes of No Reservations becoming available on Netflix. I’ve long indulged in the strange, heady pleasures of meta-food consumption–watching shows about food, while eating food, sometimes, occasionally when we’ve gone too long between vaccuums, while sitting on food. As a longtime watcher of the show, however, I’d pretty much exhausted all of the more exotic offerings that enable one to participate in that great cultural misappropriation that Jenn Mar chronicled here in her excellent Chicken Vindaloo piece. Which left me with our own country. And, invariably, with states within our own country that I know overly well, that I can’t quite believe are somehow newsworthy–it left me with Maine.
Maine–a state where you might live for 80 years, and still be considered an outsider by those who sprung from its pine-thatched loins at the dawn of recorded New England time, somewhere behind the first primitive woodshed, swaddled in plaid, somehow already clad in Bean boots. The rumors you’ve heard are true. You can’t get there from here, and, frankly, a lot of the locals just don’t want you to, because you’d ruin it.
And, oh, there is much to ruin. As I watched cameraman Zach Zamboni lead Tony Bourdain around the frozen north, shuffling him from the warm dark embrace of an oyster eatery to the frigid waters of the middle coast, I was rocketed back to my own Most Magical Vacation–a cabin on a nameless lake, in a Maine location that I cannot share, about which I will only say that we stayed with true natives, and we ate brown bread.
Brown bread. As an exiled daughter of New England, perched here in an office along the River in the Other Portland, just typing its name causes a roil of gastric juices to begin to rumble beneath my hoodie. Watching anyone try to describe it, as in that No Reservations episode, is to watch someone fail to convey that the results of that strange can alchemy are greater than the sum of its parts. You see the head-scratching–bread, boiled til done, in a can? Is there anything New Englanders won’t boil? (Answer: no) Brown bread, eaten with beans and salt pork or hot dogs, is the meal equivalent of the bright orange knit cap I inherited from my grandpa: patently not fashionable, unphotographable, but, instantly comforting. The deep molasses flavor, sweet, but not too sweet–the near-melting quality of the beans, the salt and snap of the hot dog–all of it combining to tell you that sure, winter is long, and the roads are bad, but you’ve got an entire pantry packed with bread in cans, so to hell with trying trying to impress anyone.
And here, thick in the middle of spring, but, an Oregon spring where the days that are sunny have yet to outnumber those that are grey and chill, brown bread is just as effective in staving off the thought that soon your pasty winter skin will be on display in the open air, and perhaps you shouldn’t have cooked your way through the Au Pied de Cochon cookbook in March. Pull up a chair. Give someone the wrong directions to another location. Put on your orange knit hat. And eat this bread. It won’t make you a Mainer, but, it will let you in on at least one of the secrets of the other coast, and remind you why sometimes, it’s good to misappropriate memories from closer to home.
Brown Bread: (from my grandpa)
1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup graham flour
1 cup rye flour
3/4 cup molasses
1 1/2 cups sour milk
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. salt
(optional: 1 cup raisins, tossed with 2 to 3 tbs. flour)
Mix and sift dry ingredients, and stir in the remaining ingredients. Put rounds of greased paper in the bottom of one pound baking powder tins. Grease the sides of the tins and fill 2/3 full. Steam 2 1/2 hours. To steam, place the tins on a rack inside of a kettle (ed: sort of like a canning set-up). Add warm water to half the height of the mold. Cover the kettle, and let water come to a boil. Boil gently from 1 to 2 hours until well done. More water may have to be added from time to time.