Have a square meal with Boston brown bread

  • Food
  • Sunday, 10 May 2015

The bread is best when cut in thick slices. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite bread, the bread that I still crave above all breads, has come in a can. It’s called brown bread, or outside of New England, where it is mostly unheard of, Boston brown bread.

My grandmother, whose family came from Portland, Maine, a brown-bread holy land, would bake it often, sliding the dense, brown loaf out of an old bean can, slicing it in thick discs and smearing cream cheese across each surface.

But generally, in a pinch, on a Saturday night, served with a plate of baked beans and hot dogs, my brown bread came from a gold and red B&M Brown Bread can. It came from a can because, in keeping with old New England tradition, B&M steamed its brown bread in a can, never baked it.

The company, best known for baked beans, still makes brown bread in a can; its factory stands tall on Casco Bay, at the north side of Portland, but brown bread, always a regional specialty, has become even more so.

In fact, brown bread, as sweet and moist as cake, is fast becoming a rarity in New England too.

Which is why I was dumbfounded to see it on a menu the other day at Floriole Cafe & Bakery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Floriole Bakery's brown bread. Photo Photos: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Floriole Bakery's head chef says their brown bread bakes up beautifully – serve it with butter and jam.

“That means Irish brown bread, right?” I asked the guy at the counter, assuming they were making that more commonly spotted tangy, yeast-less bread. No, he said, this bread is brown, with molasses and ...

“Made in a can?” I asked.

“Made in a can,” he said.

New England brown bread was the first thing I ever bought with money I earned; I rode my bike to a church bake sale and bought a loaf off an ancient nun. But the thing is, even then, in southern New England in the late 1970s, brown bread was feeling like a forgotten bread. The can never seemed to help.

My friends would eat it politely at all of my birthday parties, but they thought the stuff was odd; indeed, pulled from a B&M can, it came with rings around the edges, like cranberry sauce from a can. Anyway, I couldn’t believe I had found this great brown whale in the Midwest. I asked for a loaf. Floriole was sold out, but baking some more.

They are making it – in a can (but lovingly baked, not steamed).

Floriole head bread baker Alex Roman. Photo Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Floriole head bread baker Alex Roman describes the brown bread he bakes as humble, originally made with rye and cornmeal so other flours could be preserved.

So I returned to Floriole, and Alex Roman, head bread baker, took me into the kitchen and unveiled three loaves of brown bread, each as cylindrical as a grain silo. He said, looking down at his work: “I think of it as the original bran muffin. We get questions: ‘Why is it brown? What is it?’

“It’s humble. From what I know, created by colonial New Englanders, with rye and cornmeal because they were preserving their reserves of other flours,” said Roman. “They steamed it because, without ovens, they cooked in open fires.”

The origin is a bit sketchy, but that’s mostly it. Rye and wheat were cheaper and readier; when mixed with molasses (for sweetness), brown bread became a variation on steamed pudding. But when the Erie Canal was completed in the early 19th century, New England had access to refined wheats and developed a taste for white breads. The long, very slow obsolescence of brown bread began. At least that’s one of the origin tales.

Roman sliced his loaf into discs familiar from my childhood and spread butter and jam across a piece.

Floriole makes brown bread because Rachel Post, the bakery’s original bread guru (a New England native who left Floriole last year to open an upcoming pizza joint), put it on their first menus. Now, they make it every spring.

They don’t serve it with cream cheese; and Roman has never tasted B&M’s bread in a can. But he is a fine steward, using dark blackstrap molasses, buttermilk, rye flour.

He’s 28, a Chicago guy with an old soul and a large, sad, pugilistic face – one of those people you can easily imagine appearing in an old photograph.

He watched me quickly devour my first slice of his terrific brown bread and said: “I have become very interested in reviving old breads. I guess I see it as my responsibility to keep some traditions alive.” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

NEXT PAGE: Recipe for Boston Brown Bread

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