Laura Dean Bennett
These days, in many parts of Appalachia, there are people who know nothing about one of the most interesting breads ever baked – a true Appalachian creation – salt rising bread.
Pocahontas County should be proud that we still have quite a few people who produce this love-it or hate-it bread.
Most of them had the gift for bread making, and the recipes have been passed down to them from past generations.
But there are also some who are new to it, but are honoring the past and pleasing their families’, friends’ and neighbors’ palates by keeping the tradition going.
Back in the day, as the old people would say, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone around these parts not familiar with this bread – and many, when describing it, would begin with its aroma.
As is true with ramps, opinions are widely varied when it comes to salt rising bread.
Some say it’s one of the best culinary delights to ever have come out of the wood stoves of Appalachia.
Some say it smells terrible.
Some love it, some hate it and some – more’s the pity – have never tried it.
“I love salt risin’ bread,” Huntersville Historical Traditions president Tim Wade said. “Lots of us were afraid salt rising bread might become a thing of the past.”
“We didn’t want that to happen. That’s why we started having our salt rising bread contest during Huntersville Traditions Day a few years ago.”
Last year’s first place winner in that contest was Marlinton resident Kenneth Ervine.
“I learned to love salt risin’ bread because my mother, my grandmother and two of my aunts made it, and I grew up eating it,” Ervine said.
“My mother was Delpha Anita Foster Ervine, but everyone called her ‘Jab.’ My grandmother’s name was Mary Elizabeth Sharp and my aunts were Emma Lee Ervine and Madge Kramer.
“I started making salt risin’ bread right after my mother quit making it – guess it’s been 20 years ago now.
“The arthritis in her hands got bad, and she wasn’t able to knead the dough anymore. I got the hankering for it so bad, I decided to see if I could make it myself.
“Most salt rising bread is made by fermenting potatoes, but a friend gave me this book, ‘Cooking Over Coals’ by Mel Marshall,” Ervine explained. “The author was a big outdoorsman, and apparently learned a lot about cooking outdoors when he was taking out hunting parties.”
There is a recipe for salt rising bread in the book that calls for baking it in a cast iron Dutch oven. And the fermentation process in his recipe calls for using corn meal instead of potatoes.
“Well, I had a twelve-inch cast iron Dutch oven,” Ervine said. “And that Dutch oven full of salt rising bread is pretty heavy.
“I bake the equivalent of three loaves in there, and it weighs about 40 pounds,” he added, laughing.
Ervine brought the Dutch oven full of salt rising bread to the Salt Rising Bread Contest at Huntersville last October.
The judge was Susan Brown, one of the authors of a best selling book about this bread, “Salt-Rising Bread – Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.”
Brown has become something of a regional sensation in salt rising circles.
“I guess Ms. Brown thought the cast iron Dutch oven was an unusual way to bake it,” Ervine said. “She kept looking at it like it was an odd way to bring in the bread, but after she tasted it, she said, ‘That’s beautiful!’ and I won the contest!”
Everything about making salt rising bread is labor intensive.
“It’s heavy work – kneading that dough,” Ervine said. “I’ve been looking for a bread maker large enough to handle the amount of dough I make. When I’m not baking it in the Dutch oven, I usually make a double recipe – which makes five loaves in standard bread pans.
“That’s a lot of dough.
“If anyone would ask me what salt risin’ bread tastes like, I’d say, ‘Here- I’ll cut you a piece. Just toast it and put a little good butter on it, and you can’t beat it!”
Now, as anyone who grew up with salt rising bread baking in their mother’s kitchen can tell you, the smell of the fermentation process is pungent.
“I’ve tried and tried, but I’ve never been able to get my salt risin’ to stink like my mother’s did,” Ervine said. “I’ll just have to keep trying.”
Roy Beverage also likes to bake bread – all kinds of bread.
And he’s really good at it.
He’s been collecting bread recipes for a long time – witness his thick binder of recipes which includes at least 30 salt rising recipes.
“It’s a fun hobby,” Beverage said. “I’ve been making salt risin’ for about twenty-five years now.
“I’ve never sold it. I just like giving it away.
“I taught myself how to do it by using Mary Margaret Barlow’s recipe.
“She was famous for her salt risin’ bread. She’d been written up in Goldenseal magazine and in The Pocahontas Times.
“I got hooked on it when my secretary, Saundra Gilmore, gave me a loaf of Mary Margaret’s bread,” Beverage remembered.
“I make eighteen loaves at a time. I triple Mary Margaret’s recipe, which makes six loaves.
“The most I’ve ever made at one time is thirty-six – now, that’s a job!”
Beverage enjoys making the bread because he knows it brings people pleasure.
“I like to make it for elderly people, you know, folks who I know really like it,” he said. “My wife, Evilene, delivers it all around town and really all around the county for me.
“Salt risin’ was a bread from way back in the old days in old-time Appalachia. It’s a dying art, and that’s one of the reasons I like to do it.
“A lot of people, like my grandfather, wouldn’t eat any other kind of bread if he could get salt risin’.
“I make it the old-fashioned way. Well, I use Crisco in mine, but I think’s it’s as good as it is with lard.”
Beverage said making salt rising bread isn’t like making regular bread – it takes a lot more time.
“I don’t think there’s anything to these theories about weather having anything to do with it turning out or not,” he said.
“What’s important is that the risin’ has to have white foam on top, and it must stink.
“And I think another secret is the temperature. I keep it between 113 and 115 degrees for about nine hours – any hotter and it will kill the microbes,” he explained.
“I use four heating pads – one really large one underneath and three regular size heating pads on top of the loaves when I’m letting them rise. That helps keep the temperature stable, too.”
And he has strong feelings about putting yeast in salt rising bread.
“These days, some people have started making it with yeast, but it should never have yeast in it,” he insisted.
“If I lay my hand on a loaf of salt risin’, I can tell the difference. If it has yeast in it, it will feel soft. But it should always feel hard to the touch.
“I’ve mailed it to relatives who just really love it.
“Sometimes I’ve given it to someone when it’s still warm and they’re so happy to get it, they’ll sit right down and eat it fresh.
“But I like to eat it when it’s a couple days old,” Beverage said.
“It’s the toast I’m after. For some reason, it doesn’t toast up as nice when it’s fresh.
“I used to make it a whole lot,” he continued. “But these days, with the arthritis in my hands, I don’t make it as often.”
Beverage is passing down his love of the bread and how to make it to his 21 year old grandson, Aaron Beverage, who lives in the Hill Country.
“When I’m making salt risin’ bread, Aaron comes down to my house and helps me,” he said. “He really enjoys it, and he’s gotten real good, too.
“I told him he can really make it on his own now, but he still likes to come to my house and make it with me.
“I guess it’s a grandfather and grandson thing,” he said proudly.
“That makes me feel pretty good.”
Kim Clifton was putting six loaves of salt rising bread into the oven when I first met her.
“That’s all the bread I can get in there,” she said.
In about an hour and a half, Clifton would be bringing out fresh-baked salt rising bread.
Clifton only started making salt rising bread in 2014, and her bread already has a devoted following.
Her husband, J.L., came from a family who all love the bread.
“I’d always heard my husband’s mom and dad, Jerry and Linda Clifton, and his sister, Selina Gay, carrying on about salt risin’ bread – how much they liked it, and how hard it is to find,” said Clifton, who is from Pineville in Wyoming County.
“Until I came to Pocahontas County, I didn’t know a thing about salt rising bread,” she confessed. “I’d never heard of it. But it seemed like it was pretty important to folks around here so I got interested in learning how to make it.
“I’d take ideas from different recipes and try to come up with my own. I kept at it because of how much the family liked it, and it made them so happy.
“I finally had three recipes that I liked pretty well. So I baked a loaf of each one and had the family do a taste test to see which was their favorite.
“They picked the one they liked the best, and that’s the one I still make.”
Clifton uses corn meal, rather than potatoes, for the fermentation.
“Salt rising bread isn’t easy to make – it’s a long process,” she said. “I start it the night before and with three little ones – Jarrell, who is in second grade, four year old Noah and 22 month old Julia – sometimes it’s a lot. But it’s rewarding, and I enjoy it.
“I’d heard so many people say how hard it was to get, so I started selling it.
“I make it twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
Clifton has about a dozen loyal customers who order her salt rising bread on a regular basis.
They call ahead to put their order in or sometimes people just stop by her house on a Tuesday or Thursday to see if she has an extra loaf.
She usually tells people not to come before one or two o’clock to give her time to get it out of the oven, let it cool and pack it in wrappers with its ingredients listed on the label.
“Last year, I think I made twenty-two loaves the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and I don’t know how many I made for Christmas,” Clifton said.
Noah, who was helping his mom in the kitchen the day I visited, told me what he likes best about salt rising bread.
“I like it because of the inside,” he said. “I like the taste, and I like it toasted with grape jelly.”
“Yes, the entire family loves it,” Clifton added. “We like to have it toasted and spread with butter.
“I like to sell it when it’s fresh, and if I have a leftover loaf, after a few days, I’ll make bread crumbs out of it. It makes good bread crumbs for fish sticks, chicken fingers, meat balls or meatloaf – anything that calls for bread crumbs.
“I’m pretty proud of being able to make it. There’s a fear out there that salt rising bread might disappear if young people don’t take up making it.
“My kids are growing up with it, and I hope that, one day, they’ll pick it up and start making it, too,” she said, as she put another batch in the oven.
“It’s nice to think of them making it for us when I’m not able to make it anymore.”
Let’s hope it catches on.
There’ll be another salt rising bread contest during Huntersville Tradition Days the first weekend of October.
And it’s not too early for the county’s salt rising bread makers to decide which recipe they’ll be wanting to enter.
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org