icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

All Steamed Up: Ryaninjun Becomes Boston Brown Bread

Molasses--A Key Ingredient in Boston Brown Bread


With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New England became more plentifully supplied with wheat grown farther west, and people were at last able to partake regularly of the "good white and wheaten bread" that had always been their preference. Yet recipes for Ryaninjun bread, made with rye and cornmeal but little or no wheat, continued to appear in New England cookbooks. How come? (See the first post in this series, Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas, for an explanation of "Ryaninjun" and other corn-related terms and how we're using them.)
Although there's no simple answer to the question of why Ryaninjun endured after wheat was more readily available, it probably had something to do with a tendency in nineteenth-century New England that many writers have noted, some approvingly, others less so—to preserve every scrap of the past, whether a record of family lineage, a material artifact, or a food. Ryaninjun was like the family Bible. Just as the page at the front of the Bible on which the family's births, marriages, and deaths were devotedly recorded was reviewed every so often, so good old-time Ryaninjun bread was periodically baked and eaten. As the world was rapidly changing, people felt a need to remind themselves who they were.
But Ryaninjun could only survive for so long on this Yankee proclivity to backward glances. As tastier food options multiplied, something had to be done to make a pretty austere food more gastronomically appealing. Perhaps the single most important of the developments that were making eating more pleasurable has been identified by the anthropologist and historian Sidney W. Mintz. He notes that by about 1850 sugar had become "a virtual necessity" to most people in England and America. Here was one way to bring Ryaninjun more up to date. In keeping with the widespread access at mid-century to the allure of sweetness, molasses, a byproduct of the sugar-refining process, began to be included in New England Ryaninjun recipes.
After 1850, technological developments made the price of sugar fall even more dramatically, so that average people in England and America could afford to have sweet foods and drinks at virtually every meal. The same thing was happening with wheat bread. Canals were succeeded by railroads, resulting in further improvements in distribution, while industrialized milling made it possible to produce much more flour in much less time. Just about everyone could have just about as much wheat bread as they wanted at just about any time. What else, then, could be done with Ryaninjun to keep it afloat in this sea of cheap sugar and wheat?
Part of the answer was to take further advantage of the ever-greater affordability of sugar and molasses by making Ryaninjun even sweeter. Another part was to respond to the astonishment expressed by Timothy Dwight (quoted in our last post) at the idea that anyone would ever consider Ryaninjun to be bread in any sense. Why not take him at his word and make it even less of a bread? The main problem with Ryaninjun in its bread-like incarnations is its incredible density.No amount of yeast can overcome the refusal of both cornmeal and rye meal to emerge from the oven in leavened lightness. But what if the yeast were replaced by saleratus, an early form of baking soda, and what if the mixture was not baked in the oven in a skillet or loaf pan like a bread  but rather cooked in a tin steamer on the stove top, like a pudding? Voilà! Steamed Boston Brown Bread.
In the first cookbook recipe for "Steamed Brown Bread" that we've found, published in 1862, the proportion of the sweetening ingredient, molasses, to the cornmeal and rye meal is twice the proportion in the same author's recipe from sixteen years earlier for baked brown bread, aka Ryaninjun. The dough is placed in a "tin pudding pan, or a pail having a close lid," which is "set . . . into a kettle of boiling water" and then cooked for "at least four hours." The option to serve this "bread" as a pudding, complete with a sauce into which "plenty of sugar" has been stirred, is specifically included. This creation would also be "good toasted the next day." Steamed Brown Bread was carefully crafted for a culinary world in which almost everything, from after-dinner treats to cake-like quick breads at breakfast time, was aimed at the sweet tooth.
As steamed brown bread gained favor, it began to be called "Boston Brown Bread." To associate it with the metropolis of New England was to associate it with the region's reputation for education and enlightenment. On the other hand, to insist that the primary sweetening ingredient in Boston Brown Bread must always be the cheaper, more rough-and-ready molasses rather than the more expensive, more refined sugar was simultaneously to associate this actually new-fangled concoction with the reputedly traditional, ruggedly upright virtues of New England's rustic hinterland. (Exactly the same maneuvers—making a sophisticated, metropolitan dish from an earlier quotidian one—were utilized at this time to turn bean pottage into molasses-soaked Boston Baked Beans.) Such recipe and nomenclature adjustments allowed those interested in preserving New England's regional identity or advancing its claim to national leadership both to have their Boston Brown Bread and to eat it too.
That's a quick take on the cultural dynamics that contributed to the transformation of the Ryaninjun bread of Colonial New England into the Boston Brown Bread of the late-nineteenth-century Colonial Revival. To learn more about the gradual transformation of New England recipes during the nineteenth century, check out our book, Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England. In our last post in this series on New England breads made with little or no wheat, we'll tell you about two adaptations of steamed Boston Brown Bread that we made, in both of which some wheat is mixed in with the cornmeal and rye flour: tasty quick-baked brown bread muffins, and a heartier version of a baked brown bread that Fannie Farmer calls Third Bread. But before that, we'll take a short detour in the penultimate post in this series to explore the personal recollections of one of us, who remembers that everyone in and around Boston (and beyond) in the 1950s and '60s ate the canned version of Boston Brown Bread!

Be the first to comment