There are few things more evocative than the smell of freshly baked bread… in Atlantic Canada that quite often means ‘brown bread’. Ask any home cook in Atlantic Canada good chance they will have a favourite brown bread recipe. There are several in the My Mother’s Cookbook collection, some versions are baked, others steamed, some with raisins, etc.
In Atlantic Canada and in the New England states ‘brown bread’ refers not to ‘whole grain’ breads of other regions, but instead applies to yeast raised bread made with wheat flour (in some cases with other grains) and sweetened with molasses (often Blackstrap1).
The relationship between molasses and the region is a well known legacy of the Triangular trade2 links with the West Indies. Wheat production in the region began almost as soon as Europeans began to arrive, the first cultivation occurred in Port Royal, NS about 16053. It would take until the late 1800’s for wheat to become consistently available.
For farm women like Elizabeth McKinnon Carroll and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Campbell McDougall preparing food for their families, would require flexibility and experimentation particularly during the period before 1900. Although, Thomas Carroll would certainly have grown buckwheat, and oats he might also have tried a small crop of wheat on his farm in Carroll’s Crossing, New Brunswick. It would not have supplied enough to meet their large family’s needs. Elizabeth would have depended upon buckwheat, and oats, as well as other seeds and grains to augment the wheat flour she could afford to purchase.
Lizzie’s and her husband Allan McDougall would not have been able to grow wheat on the farm in Bhreac Brook, a backland community of Cape Breton. The McDougall’s would have grown oats and raised sheep, along with other crops and animals, but wheat was not at all suited to the steep slopes and poor soil of their farm. Any wheat flour Lizzie had access to, had to be purchased with their limited financial resources.
The physical demands of farming, lumber harvesting, fishing and mining all required a diet high in energy. Although Elizabeth and Lizzie’s husbands were ‘farmers’, they also worked off the farm. Thomas Carroll was a woodsman and Allan McDougall worked in the mining industry. Requiring both men to leave their farm for extended periods, women and children would have taken up the farm work, placing additional physical burden upon them.
For much of the 19th century both Lizzie and Elizabeth would have relied heavily on other non-wheat offerings in their bread, as well as molasses. Only after Canadian prairie wheat was available around 1900, did the versions of ‘Brown Bread’ we most commonly think of today, containing only (or primarily) wheat flour and molasses began to appear regularly.
The change faced by the two women was not limited to the ingredients in their pantry. They would see family, friends and neighbours leaving their communities lured by work in the boom towns/ company towns like Marysville and Glace Bay. Some further a field, to places like Minnesota to harvest timber or to work in the factories of New England. Soon the former communities like Bhreac Brook were all but abandoned.
Eventually, Lissie and Allan joined the exodus of families moving off farm. Transition to living in the Boom town of Glace Bay would have been strange and intimidating for Lizzie, who had been born and lived her entire life in the rural Scottish Gaelic enclave of Bhreac Brook. She would settle in to modest house in the bustling town as Allan took work as a brakeman on the rail system, serving the collieries and workers. Allan, and Lizzie would finish out their lives in Glace Bay, leaving their name on the street where they lived.
Similar forces were at play in Carrolls Crossing, the once thriving community with a church, school, stores, etc. was all but abandoned as many left to find work and lives elsewhere. Suddenly, workers needed for timber harvest, and cultivating crops were thin on the ground, forcing investment in technology. Although Elizabeth and Thomas would see family and friends leave the area, they would continue, eventually establishing their family and farm as a mainstay in the community. It endures today.
So what about the bread… Brown bread always includes molasses but only oatmeal (not buckwheat, or flax seed) makes its appearance today in some versions of Brown Bread. Porridge style Brown breads probably originally contained buckwheat as well as oatmeal, but only oatmeal endures…
Both Elizabeth Carroll and Lizzie McDougall descended from Scots who settled Eastern Canada. Elizabeth’s Grandfather Gregor McKinnon was born in the Isle of Skye, Lizzie’s parents were born and raised in the Highlands of Scotland. There is little doubt Lizzie would have made the style of Brown Bread, known also as ‘porridge bread’. Oats have long been a mainstay in the Scottish diet. Elizabeth would have used buckwheat and other wheat alternatives including oats…did her Scottish ancestry influence her choices? I suspect so…here is the My Mother’s Cookbooks Porridge style Brown Bread recipe:
My Mother’s Cookbooks…Brown Bread (Porridge)
3 cups boiling water
2 cups oatmeal
3 Tbsp dry yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
3/4 cup molasses
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup melted shortening
6 cups All purpose flour
Additional 2-3 cups flour for kneading to texture
1) Combine boiling water and oatmeal in a large bowl and set aside in fridge to cool;
2) Combine yeast, lukewarm water, sugar and let prove in a warm place;
3) Add yeast, molasses, salt, shortening and 6 cups of flour to oatmeal mixture, mixing well;
4) Knead in additional flour until dough does not stick to your hands and dough is smooth;
5) Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and set aside in a warm place to rise about 3 hours;
6) Punch the dough down, form in to loaves and let raise for an additional hour;
7) Bake at 325 degrees F about 1 hour or until cooked.
Resources and Explanations:
1) Blackstrap Molasses is a by product of sugar refining, the strong and cheapest grade of molasses was used for many purposes in the 19th century. Holding little value in Europe, it became a staple in the diets of Atlantic Canada.
2) Triangular trade is the trade roots which assured raw materials from the colonies to the factories of the Empire. It brought African slaves to the West Indies (to work the sugar plantations) and molasses to the Eastern region of Canada.
3) According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the first Canadian cultivation of wheat was in 1605.