March 13, 2012

Brown Bread, or Rye and Indian

I love the taste combination of cornmeal and molasses. I can't get enough of it, which is why I love Indian pudding and Anadama bread. It's also why I love Boston brown bread.

Some people leave off the "Boston" and just call it brown bread, but no matter what you call it this loaf is quintessentially New England. These days it's usually served with baked beans or during clambakes, but for centuries it was a common everyday bread.

Brown bread has an interesting history. When the Puritans first settled in this area their preferred grain for baking was wheat, but they soon learned that corn (maize) grew much better in the New England soil. According to historians, the average farm produced 100 bushels of corn to 18 bushels of wheat. This ratio only got worse after a wheat fungus evocatively called "the blast" arrived. Ultimately, New Englanders needed to import wheat from other parts of the country, which made it quite expensive.

My brown bread is indeed very brown!

Although wheat didn't grow well here, a less popular European grain did - rye. Along with cornmeal, rye flour became the main ingredient for the bread baked by common people, and also gave it it's name, Rye and Indian. This name later became condensed to one word, Ryaninjun. The term Indian here refers to Indian corn, or maize.

The Puritans made Ryaninjun by mixing the two flours with some leavening and liquid, and forming them into dome shaped loaves (similar to modern soda bread). Ryaninjun loaves were baked on oak leaves or cabbage leaves, which imparted an interesting flavor. In the autumn small children were sent out to gather oak leaves specifically for baking bread.

In the 1820s, Ryaninjun also began to be called brown bread, and the two terms became interchangeable. At this time recipes began to include molasses, and called for steaming the bread in cylindrical molds rather than baking.

In the earliest twenty-first century the name Ryaninjun has disappeared, but many recipes still call for steaming the bread, often in coffee cans. I baked mine in a loaf pan, using a recipe I found in a Mark Bittman cookbook. The recipe didn't call for lining the pan with oak leaves, but I think I'll try that in the fall!

I got this information from Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's wonderful book America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking.


Doug said...

Bittman is the best!

I remember making Indian Pudding at home after having it the first time at the Bates Commons for thanksgiving. No one at home seemed to be as thrilled as I was.

Peter Muise said...

Doug, I'm sorry your initial effort to spread the gospel of cornmeal and molasses to Pennsylvania failed. I hope you didn't give up!

Beth said...

I ate this as a kid with butter and it was the best, right out of the can. I associate it with my grandmother, she often brought a can along when she visited and I can remember eating it at her house too. I tried buying it since getting married and whatever I could find once wasn't good at all. So I will have to make it...but now I find myself allergic to gluten so I may never taste that goodness again.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Beth! Thanks for the comment. Your memory of the bread is very nice. Maybe you can find a gluten free recipe online?