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Thanksgiving Family Secrets : What's Bread in the Coffee Can


Most of my family was living in California by the 1880s, and their various culinary heritages--New England, Southern and Midwestern--had begun to take on a uniform Californian quality by the time I was on the scene. But not my Perry grandfather, the only one of my grandparents not born out here. He came from a rather New England-y part of upstate New York, where Perrys westering in from Massachusetts had been thick on the ground since the early 18th Century, and a mere 60 years of living in California hadn't altered his tastes.

The rest of the Thanksgiving meal was a menu a lot of people would recognize: turkey with sage stuffing, cranberry preserves, mashed potatoes, candied yams (possibly due to my Southern grandmother's influence), succotash, green and Jell-O salads, corn bread and hot rolls. But for Granddad's sake, we always had brown bread.

Insofar as people outside New England know of brown bread, they think of it as something to make canapes and cream cheese sandwiches with, and possibly to eat with baked beans. To Granddad, and consequently to us, it was a bread--a dark, sweet, dessert-like bread you ate at Thanksgiving and Christmas.


Brown bread is more like an English steamed pudding than an oven bread. The traditional shape is cylindrical, because for many decades people have usually steamed it in an empty coffee can, rather than a pudding mold.

One theory is that New Englanders invented brown bread because they couldn't make an English risen loaf with cornmeal, and wheat often didn't do as well in the local climate as rye. Meanwhile, New Englanders always had a lot of molasses on hand due to their trade contacts with the Caribbean, so why not make pudding?

For Thanksgiving Grandmother often made her own starchy brown pudding from graham flour, which was like a cross between brown bread and fruitcake. When both were served at the same meal, we sometimes felt we'd reached the limit of how much dense, spongy, sweet brown stuff a person could eat. But it wouldn't have been Thanksgiving without brown bread.


1 cup milk

1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice

1/2 cup rye flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup raisins

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Ground cloves

1/3 cup molasses

In bowl mix milk with white vinegar. Let stand at room temperature 10 to 15 minutes.

Mix rye flour, cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, raisins, baking soda, salt, ginger and dash cloves in large bowl. Stir in molasses and milk. Blend well.

Butter clean 12-ounce coffee can. Pour in batter. Cover mouth of can with foil and place in deep pot. Add boiling water halfway up can. Cover pot and steam over moderate heat, replacing water if necessary, until straw inserted to middle of bread comes out clean, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Remove from heat and let stand on rack 10 minutes, then unmold. While still hot, slice by drawing string around bread, crossing, and pulling ends. Can be reheated in 300-degree oven. Makes 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

126 calories; 136 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 1 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.33 gram fiber.

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