‘How can something that smells so bad taste so good?’
Several years ago a new, young minister by the name of Randy Benson came to Marlinton Presbyterian Church. He ventured out one day to visit parishioners Sam and Mary Barlow. As he got out of his car he was met with a most distinct odor – not an aroma, but an odor. Determined to do his pastoral duties, he entered the house. At the end of the visit, Mary asked if he would like a loaf of homemade bread.
Benson asked, “What kind of bread?’
Mary said, “Salt-rising. That is what you’ve been smelling.”
Benson said he didn’t really want it, but decided to do the friendly thing, so he took it, and like a lot of folks, he became a fan of “saltrising bread.”
When Sam Barlow passed away, Benson, who by then had moved from Marlinton, had returned for a visit and was called on to officiate at the service.
That day, he recalled his first visit with Sam and Mary, and he ended the service with these words: “Life is like salt-rising bread. Sometimes it stinks, but in the end, it’s pretty darn good.”
In my former life as an “innkeeper,” I always looked forward to Pioneer Days when the Yeager family booked my motel.
One year, as we caught up on the happenings of the year, I regaled them with the tale of a dreadful Valentine’s Day storm.
I told them how I had driven out from the farm, sure that I would slide into the river. With a heart rate of 120, I made a decision to not drive back to the farm until the road had been plowed.
I told them that as a result of that storm, a section of my machine shed had collapsed, the front axle of a tractor had broken, one of my best cows slipped on the ice and broke her leg, and for four days I walked back and forth from the motel to the farm, and I lived on salt rising toast.
To which Bob Yeager asked, “Where did you get your salt rising bread?’
I replied, “Obviously, you are not interested in my troubles.”
Bob’s grandmother was from Lithuania, and it was in her home in Buckeye that he had been introduced to the joys of salt rising bread, so he thought it was a “Lithuania thing.”
That’s the way it is with salt rising bread. Always a good conversation “starter.”
Nearly everyone whose history is tied to this neck of the woods has a story about salt-rising bread – aromatic stories that tie them to the past – good or bad.
As it turns out, salt-rising bread is a “thing” of Appalachia.
Genevieve Bardwell is the proprietor of Rising Creek Bakery, which specializes in traditional salt-rising bread. The bakery is located in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania.
Susan Ray Brown is the founder of the online resource, The Salt Rising Bread Project, www.saltrising bread.net
Jenny and Susan recently published a book on the subject, Salt-Rising Bread, Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.
In that book, they write, “More than twenty years ago, we set out to find and interview the people who still baked salt-rising bread, and beyond that, to discover the secrets and the science behind its unique fermentation and memorable aroma, texture and taste. Our search took us from the Appalachian parlors and kitchens of bread making elders to the laboratory of a renowned microbiologist, to bread museums and the pages of rare cookbooks and pioneer diaries. What we found was a treasure of American Culinary lore.”
Within the pages of this little book, they take on their “list of mysteries.”
• Where did salt-rising bread come from, and who made it first?
• How did salt-rising bread get its name when there is little or no salt in its recipes?
• What is happening when a starter does not work?
• What is happening when a sponge does not work?
• What is happening when the loaves do not rise?
• What factors determine the intensity of the “salt rising” aroma?
• What effect does adding ginger to a starter play in the fermentation?
• Why does starter often not work when the outdoor temperature fluctuates from warm to below freezing?
• What folklore around success or failure can be believed?
• What is it about salt-rising bread that makes memories stay alive deep in people’s hearts for a lifetime?
In the introduction of the book, Jenny and Susan write: “Behind every well-loved food there are stories, often heartwarming ones, about where the food came from and the people whose lives it has touched. “
The late Pearl Haines introduced Jenny to her first loaf of salt-rising bread, now a staple at her bakery.
Jenny writes that, by far, the hardest aspect of being the proprietor of a bakery is when the bread fails to work, and customers are disappointed – people who may have traveled 50 miles along back roads after working all day, just to buy a loaf.
But failures are common.
Salt-rising bread is pretty darn fickle.
Pocahontas County’s own Joyce Varner knows that.
She lives in Durbin.
Varner’s expertise in the realm of salt-rising bread making is included in this When asked if she had every had a failure, Varner replied, “My neighbor, old Lady Keller, said to me that salt rising bread is just like a typical virgin – you never know what it’s going to do. I don’t care how many times you make it, it will be different each time. Sometimes, it’s beautiful and, when you slice it, it is just like pound cake. Then, you’ll make it three or four times, and it won’t come up at all. Sometimes, you just have to pray for it to rise. When it doesn’t work, I put it back in the flour sack and ask someone to haul it away.”
Speaking of pound cake, James Furnas observed, in his book, The Americans: A Social History of the United States: “Indeed it is, when at its best, it is as if a delicately reared, unsweetened plain cake had had an affair with a Pont l’Eveque cheese.”
Susan and Jenny began their story by seeking out the stories and recipes of the “guardians and inheritors of the rich salt-rising bread tradition.” They looked to modern science to help them understand the behavior of the wild microbes that shape the bread’s unique personality, and they look to the future.
“Who will be the ones to keep the tradition alive and pass it on to new generations of bakers?
“If you grew up loving your grandmother’s salt-rising bread and you miss it, and her, this book is for you,” they write. “If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of eating salt-rising bread and wonder why anyone would write an entire book about it, this book is for you, too.”
Salt-Rising Bread, Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition is available from St. Lynn’s Press, PO Box 18680, Pittsburgh, Pa 15326 or www.stlynnspress.com
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are gone, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us…bearing resiliently the immense edifice of memory.” – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past