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A Very Good Taste of Yesterday

Mary Jo Shannon

One thing is certain where salt-rising bread is concerned – you either love it or hate it. The real thing, tingly and sour with a peculiar odor that defies description, bears little resemblance to the loaves you may occasionally find on grocery shelves today. My father and brothers complained about the smell and refused to try it. My mother and I devoured a fresh loaf to the last crumb and wished for more.

Perhaps its appeal was due in part to its temperamental nature. Made with wild yeast, the dough demanded perfect conditions to sour and rise properly. That meant a constant warm temperature. This was easy to achieve during hot summer days, when the old wood range kept the kitchen sweltering in daytime and the temperature seldom dropped below 80 degrees at night. But during fall and winter months, you needed some artificial way to maintain warmth over an extended period of time – at least twelve hours.

That’s where the “salt-rising” comes in – not from salt added to the dough, but from salt heated on the stove and used to cradle the crock of starter. (Salt retains heat well; it was also heated and poured into a clean sock to provide a “heating pad” for an ear ache or cold feet on a winter night!)

The baking process was a long one, usually begun once the dinner dishes were washed and put away. Potatoes were peeled, sliced as thinly as possible, and placed inside a gallon crock. A couple of tablespoons of white cornmeal, some sugar and salt and a quart of boiling water were added to the crock. Cheesecloth, to keep out the flies but allow wild yeast to spores access to the brew, was carefully tied over the top, and a heavy cloth or layers of newspaper wrapped around the sides for insulation. Finally, the crock was placed on the stove above the tank where water was heated for dish washing and Saturday night baths.

Usually by morning a disagreeable smell and a bubbly appearance announced the starter was ready. The potato, having done its job, was removed and discarded. The mixture was transferred to a large wooden bowl and milk, water, baking soda, a bit of salt and shortening added. Then Mother’s wooden spoon stirred cup after cup of flour into the liquid until the stiff dough could be turned out upon the kitchen table for kneading.

Perspiration beaded on her forehead and flour dusted her arms and apron as she pummeled the spongy mass with the heel of her hand, folding and kneading, folding and kneading, with a slow steady rhythm, until the lump of dough was as smooth and silky as a baby’s bottom. Then she divided it into three plump loaves, placed each in a well-oiled pan, and prayed it would double in size.

A hot summer day – or a pan of hot salt – hastened the process. But even with perfect conditions, you could expect to wait several long hours before the creamy dough swelled sufficiently to make a springy loaf.

If all went well, by late afternoon the hot kitchen would be filled with the pungent aroma of baking bread, browning in the 400 degree oven. Three loaves of genuine salt rising bread, sliced and dripping with freshly churned butter, would grace the supper table.

When I hunger for a taste of yesterday, I get out my mother’s recipe and try my luck. On cool autumn days or in winter, I put the starter in a pan of warm water on my electric warming tray, which keeps the temperature constant. When the loaves are ready, I cover them with a tea towel and let them rest on a cake rack atop the warming tray.

To me it is the smell of love.

By Mary Jo Shannon
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