Just because a food is traditional to a community or group does not mean it was eaten by everyone in it. It is interesting how individual and varied food choices are, despite major underlying similarities…A few years ago, Ray and I were attending a conference out of province, a good friend offered to ‘stay in’ to care for our dog Meesha in our absence. The evening before our departure, I prepared a meal with intended leftovers and I left a note telling my friend to enjoy the roast pork, salad, carrots, couscous, gravy, and My Mother’s Cookbooks bread pudding for her after work meal.
Later that next evening I received a text from my friend thanking me for dinner. When she said she’d never eaten ‘it’ before, I assumed we were talking about the Morrocan couscous. But her confession she eaten two servings, one with the pork meal and the other as dessert had the penny dropping…my friend had never eaten or encountered bread pudding before.
Foods which were in regular rotation in our home growing up tend to engender one of two responses in us as adults…intense enjoyment or complete avoidance. Of course which category a food fits into is dependent on many things, individual preference, the skill of the cook, even the associations foods carry with life events contribute to whether a food becomes a personal tradition. The variety of traditions of individuals and families, is vast even dietary staples like bread have their limits, bread pudding is a case in point.
Given the variety of yeast raised breads available to us, it would be easy to assume that some form of wheat bread has always been available. Despite being used over thousands of years, despite a variety of methods for ‘baking’ it, the supply and consumption of yeast raised wheat bread varied upon location. Wheat is not indigenous to North America in Eastern North America the climate, and soil conditions are highly variable, settlers found they could grow wheat in some areas others not at all. The desire for wheat1, because of it’s nutrition and usability made it a valuable commodity. So farmers grew it where the yield was sufficient to justify it, but always accompanied by staples like squash, beans and corn2.
For young women like Mary MacKenzie Munroe and Dorothy Price Hovey, wheat flour and wheat bread came in and out of their lives, depending upon their movement, their ability to grow wheat or the funds or product available to exchange for wheat flour. Mary, who grew up in Stoney Beach on the shores of the Annapolis River in Nova Scotia, knew wheat as a child, her parents Alexander and Ann likely grew it on their farm. The Annapolis valley, one of the earliest European settlement in Canada, was home to the first wheat exported from Canadian soil. Acadian settlers brought wheat with them from France, by the mid 17th century the yield was sufficient to warrant export3.
The Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, ‘Acadia’, benefits from rich fertile soil deposited by the glacial movements of the distant past but it is the microclimate created by the valley’s location between two mountains which is truly unique. The North Mountain protects the valley from the winds off the Bay of Fundy, the South mountain sheltering it from the Atlantic Coastal winds, creating environment and soil conditions conducive to vegetable and fruit cultivation.
Like Mary, Dolly might well have preferred to eat yeast raised wheat bread but it would not have appeared regularly on her table. European settler families to areas like the Massachusetts and New Jersey colonies cultivated corn, squash and beans, with far less effort focused on wheat and Rye. It is entirely likely for Dolly daily bread was unleavened cornbread.
The desire for new opportunities, fewer restrictions on religion practice and the offer of ‘free’ land saw Dolly’s parents Edmund and Jane relocating to the Nova Scotia colony as “New England Planters”4. The St John River valley of New Brunswick was a comparatively wild place in the mid 18th century. It did offer fertile land, some of the most fertile land in New Brunswick can be found in the St John River valley. The river with head waters in both Quebec and Maine, at Maugerville and Gagetown, is wide and slow moving as it meanders through a floodplain and delta created by the confluence of tributaries and wetlands. The narrow gorge at the Reversing falls some 60 miles down river creates a natural damming effect which during the spring melt causes regular flooding of the river plain.
Within 10 years of Mary marriage to Evan Munro and her move to Maugerville, New Brunswick, the influx of refugees from the Revolutionary war began placing strain on food, land and other resources. The challenge of feeding and supporting a suddenly burgeoning population saw farmers growing wheat where they could, primarily as a cash crop. Less fertile fields were cultivated with buckwheat, oats, barley, potatoes and used for personal use with any surplus traded.
It is possible during her childhood in the Nova Scotia colony that Dolly ate yeast raised wheat bread, courtesy of her family’s effort to grow wheat. When Dolly married Aaron Hovey and moved to the Miramichi River Valley, eating wheat became far less frequent. If it appeared at all, Dolly would have probably purchased it. The Miramichi region is long associated with the timber industry, and with the consumption of buckwheat which will grow in the very poorest soils. Provided one could afford the price, wheat was also available. It seems it was just available enough to assure folks maintained a taste for it. Although Selkirk settlers to the prairies began cultivating wheat in 1814 it would take until the development of cold hardy varieties for wheat to become reliably available.
Cooks in Atlantic Canada during the period from 1890 to 1950 made bread and plenty of it. It was common for a woman with a large family to make bread several times per week, most of which quickly disappeared. What did not get eaten immediately was not allowed to spoil, instead odd sized pieces and ends were repurposed in to dressings, added as thickening and transformed in to desserts.
Some dessert recipes call for the bread to be crumbed or grated and added as a sort of flour replacement. In bread pudding the high ratio of bread to other ingredients makes bread the obvious star of the show, even as it lends it self to a variety of flavour combinations. I suspect this in part explains why bread pudding rarely appears on offer at high end bakeries or restaurants. Even dressed with the freshest eggs, and cream, sweetened with cinnamon and sugar, or with some chopped fruit tossed in, ‘bread’ pudding remains a humble dessert in the minds of some, just leftover bread… but to others it is delicious comfort food.
My Mother’s Cookbook’s Bread Pudding
3 beaten eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbsp melted butter
3 cups whole milk
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
10 slices of whole grain bread cut into 1 inch pieces
1 cup of raisins (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F;
2. Melt butter and set aside to cool;
3. In a medium sized bowl beat eggs;
4. Add white and brown sugar and cinnamon;
5. Add cooled butter, vanilla and milk, mix well;
6. Place bread pieces in to a butter baking dish, pour the custard over it, set aside 30 minutes to permit the bread to hydrate;
7. Bake 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean;
8. Allow to cool for at least an hour before serving, can be served warm or chilled.
References and Explanations:
1) Wheat is indigenous to Asia, during the course of thousands of years, wheat became a preferred grain in the diets of Western nations. The introduction of wheat to North America and the impact ‘our determined cultivation’ has had on First Nations People, their culture and way of life, is undeniable. Wheat and our fascination with it has often been with out consideration of the negative impact on First Nations Peoples, and on our environment. The “Wheat belly” controversy made a dent in some of our fascination with wheat and wheat bread, yet it remains an issue we have yet to resolve.
2) Squash, Beans and corn – are true North America foods, introduced to European settlers by First Nations peoples. Some describe these staples as the Three Sisters, others acknowledge even this nod to the importance First Nations People and their food played in the lives of European settlers is a distortion and over simplification, even a settler appropriation of First Nations culture. It is with out doubt European settlement and our fascination with wheat flour in particular has played a role in displacing, and destroying the way of life of First Nations People.
3) Wheat and Canada – https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wheat
4) After the expulsion of Acadians from their lands beginning in 1755, British authorities began recruiting settlers to assume the properties forcibly vacated by Acadians. Recruitment occurred in both Britain and the Colonies, the largest group of settlers during this period were New Englanders who ‘planted’ in Nova Scotia. Governor Lawrence preferred to encourage settlers with farming experience, which actively discouraged ex military settlers since they were not ‘farmers’.
Acknowledgement: I acknowledge that the land on which I live and write about is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.