It's important to remember that for thousands of years, bread truly was the staff of life for people. It was the cornerstone of the table, a filling and nutritious form of sustenance. Historically speaking, white bread was a sign of luxury. It meant you could afford to have pure white flour freed from its bran (which went rancid quickly). The lack of bran gave the flour a longer shelf life.
Interestingly enough, according to Marielle Cormier-Boudreau and Melvin Gallant's A Taste of Acadie, white bread was a staple for the Acadians, at least until the Deportation. After that, "the wheat harvest was generally poor on the land on which they were forced to live, and white flour was a commodity they could rarely afford." That's putting it mildly.
The land that many Acadian families worked after the Deportation was not the best for growing wheat, but thankfully buckwheat grew relatively well. Breads of all kinds were eaten in many Acadian homes in various forms. Today packaged white bread is no longer seen as a luxury item that liberated women from the drudgery of baking daily, but rather as a bland, tasteless filler.
Until the popularity of cake yeast (and later dry instant yeast, which is found in most people's pantries today), breads were leavened by various methods: either through fermenting part of a bread dough to create a levain, leaven as it is known in English, or by boiling hops and potatoes and fermenting the mash left over from the two. The method for making such a mash, like all good recipes, depends on whom you ask.
In the book La Cuisine de Chéticamp, Ginette Aucoin mentions that baking bread "could take as long as two days." Aucoin talks about using "ups," which were also used for making beer. Although the French word for them is houblon, Aucoin is indeed talking about hops, which would have been pronounced "ups" by the French-speaking Acadians of the region.
In Travel On, Jean Doris LeBlanc, another Acadian from Cape Breton, writes that hops would be placed into a canvas bag, which was then placed in a pot of boiling water and potatoes. "The mixture is boiled for about an hour – until the water turns colour. We then take out the bag of hops and put it away to be used another time. We can generally use it twice before it's worn out. After this we pick out the potatoes, one at a time, with a large spoon and mash them in the spoon with a fork, then drop the mashed material back into the liquid. When all the potatoes are mashed, we pour the thick liquid into a crock and cork it. It can be used immediately."
Learning how to bake bread has made me appreciate the eating of bread tenfold. The first time I tried making cornmeal and molasses bread, I knew it would be perfect for people who have never baked bread or who have been intimidated by the process. This is a very sturdy dough that can handle heavy kneading and a good amount of flour; it teaches a baker to understand one of the most important things you can learn in making bread: the feel of the dough.
I found versions of this recipe in multiple books, both private and published. One version came from a small blue notebook that was owned by my grandfather Augustin's cousin Denis. The notebook looked like it was cobbled together from various family sources, with hints, tips and recipes for the bachelor. I found the same recipe, written verbatim, in another notebook by Rosalie, Augustin's wife. It is a popular recipe that has been transmitted from one generation to the next.
What is interesting about this bread is that it's a prime example of a food found throughout Atlantic Canada. I found a version of it in a book of recipes written by descendants of black Loyalists, who brought the use of cornmeal in breads with them from the United States in the 1800s. This makes sense, since cornmeal is found in many a Loyalist pantry and also in many an African-American pantry throughout the American South.
The bread is also known as Anadama bread in Boston. Its colourful name comes from the rather apocryphal tale of a man who was tired of eating the same cornmeal mush his wife served him every day. "Anna, damn her," he apparently said, and added yeast, flour and molasses to his mush and baked it into a bread.
It doesn't matter who came up with this bread or who cooked it first. What matters is that it was shared and eaten because it's delicious.
Simon Thibault will be discussing his book at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto on May 29.
Excepted with permission from Nimbus Publishing. Copyright 2017 Simon Thibault.