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Food & Travel Guide

Food & Travel Guide

In Newfoundland, the bread is white and it is baked in buns, three to a loaf. Molasses buns might be popular, and tea buns too, but bread, good and proper and simple, is almost invariably the same.

It has what Randolph Healey, writing in the Evening Telegram back in 1998, eloquently described as a “tanned light crust, and an airy mouth-watering taste that is a little moist, and a little dry, and a little like your first serious kiss.”

The buns rise together, like row houses almost, and where they come together is where you’ll find the “kissing pieces,” four to a three bun loaf—pieces prized among children for their scarcity and their softness. Newfoundland youth were not immune to the apathy that children often feel about crust—a problem severe enough to warrant the introduction of the “Crust Man.” If you didn’t eat your crusts, the Crust Man would carry you off in his sack of crusts, or he might wait until they were all good and mouldy before stealing into your bedroom, sitting on your chest, and forcing you to eat them.

But there wasn’t much crust, anyway. Traditional Newfoundland bread pans were long and deep—nothing like you’ll find in the stores now. Chances are good that if you have real bread pans these days you got them from your mother, from whom you also learned to bake (probably before you could reach the kitchen counter). Children were commonly placed on chairs or on crates to work at the counter with Mum.

“I don’t remember learning to make bread,” says Andrea Monro of St. John’s. “Mum would make bread and she’d get us to mix it. If there was dough, we always had a piece of it.”

Going through a stack of old community cookbooks, I was amazed at the dearth of basic white bread recipes—and that, in the ones that did exist, there was no mention of dividing your dough into buns. This didn’t seem to surprise anyone else. “If you were writing a story about walking down the street,” said one interviewee, “you wouldn’t say that the sun rose in the east, now would you?”

Brenda Regular, of Corner Brook, was happy to share her recipe, which was passed down from her great grandmother (see “Mrs. Regular’s White Bread,” page 4), but notes, “You don’t use really precise measurements. It’s more or less trial and error. My first batch of bread wasn’t very good, but then it got better.” Regular measures her flour with her mother’s sifter, and she measures sugar with the scoop. Water doesn’t even get measured—you just add enough to make the dough feel right.

A measure of womanhood

Breadmaking was overwhelmingly women’s work and indeed, writes Memorial University folklore professor Diane Tye: “Making bread well was a measure of successful womanhood.”

Good bread (as evaluated by the standards of a 1933 baking contest, anyway) could be judged on appearance, flavour, lightness, and texture. The crumb would be airy but tight—large air bubbles were unlucky, and could be taken as an omen portending death.

Bread in Newfoundland today is much the same.

According to Hilda Chaulk Murray, the loaves for that depression- era contest would have been made with cake yeast; a barm rose overnight, perhaps under the bed, and was mixed into a dough the following day. It would have been baked in a wood burning oven; keeping the bread evenly heated, never mind the mixing and the rest, would have taken considerable skill. And if you were doing that every day, or every other, she said, baking bread was a structure around which other chores could be planned.

Schedules and society have changed, and homemade bread is increasingly the exception rather than the norm. But home-baked bread, and especially the smell of a loaf in the oven, remains powerfully evocative. “Homemade bread and its memories allow Newfoundlanders to momentarily return to a rural way of life that no longer exists,” writes Tye.

Monro, who still bakes regularly, offers that the smell of bread baking is not nostalgia, but rather a marker of home. “I’m really glad [my sons] are going to grow up in a house that’s cozy, with good smells and good things,” she says.

Why three buns?

Back in the day, white bread was made, almost exclusively, in enormous batches. In Women of Fogo Island, by Sonya Foley, one woman recalls mixing 100 lbs of flour into bread every two weeks, “And sure that didn’t last too long.” With big families to feed, bread was just as much a staple as cod.

It was used in poultices as a cure for everything from a sore finger to whooping cough, and it was brought along on journeys to appease the fairies. Writes Barbara Rieti in Strange Terrain, “Bread provided a talisman of domesticity (and culture) against the perils of the wilderness.”

There were also strong religious practices associated with bread-making—loaves were crossed as they rose (they still are, at least in Mrs. Regular’s kitchen), and bread baked on Good Friday held special significance. Nobody I spoke to was able to explain why bread was baked in three buns, not two, not four, but, suggests Monro, “I think every time you see a recurring three in a Christian society, chances are good there’s some significance, right?” A bun for each entity in the Christian Trinity would make a lot of sense.

The ubiquitous preference for white bread is highlighted by the most tumultuous episode of Newfoundland’s bread history—the introduction of brown (whole wheat) flour for recipients of “the dole.”

During the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed people turned to the government for relief. Applicants did not receive money; instead, they had to accept food items from a list. Early 20th century doctors had linked the “tea and bread” diet to rampant malnutrition and the prevalence of Beriberi (a thiamine/vitamin B1 deficiency) in outport communities. Newspaper editorials on the subject had done nothing to boost the sale of whole wheat, but with the introduction of “dole rations,” the government sought to ease the problem.

It backfired. Newfoundlanders called the brown flour “animal feed” and they traded it away. Some must have been baked but it was undoubtedly a mark of desperation, and for people who’d already had to give up self-government, it was just another reminder that their lives were not their own to control.

The end of the Second World War saw the introduction of American standard enriched flour, designed to combat malnutrition south of the border; eventually, all white flour in Canada had to be enriched with vitamins and minerals.

Whole wheat bread never caught on. You can buy it now, but when you say bread in Newfoundland, it’s the white kind you’re talking about.

Changing times

Joan Breen, of St. John’s, baked for her six children, using half a stone of flour (7 lbs/3.25 kg) at a go.

“As fast as I could toast the bread in the morning and put it on the table it disappeared,” she says.

Breen would go on to start baking bread commercially in the mid ’80s, putting out 40 or 50 loaves a day, all mixed by hand in a plastic tub. “I call that cardiac therapy,” she chuckles, flexing her biceps. Today, Breen’s Bakery and Deli in St. John's produces between 2,000 and 3,000 loaves a week, mostly for their turkey sandwiches.

Paradise Bakery, in Paradise, NL, puts out 2,500 loaves a day, which are distributed mostly in corner stores around the North East Avalon Peninsula. Bread, baked in commercial quantities, but not so far removed from the homemade loaves that people will remember, is everywhere—and that might help to explain why home baking is on the decline. It is much more convenient to run out to the store than to mix and knead and shape and bake.

Partly, it’s a question of time. Women have increasingly joined the workforce, and it’s hard to bake when you’ve got a job outside the house. And while tastes remain much the same, the Newfoundland diet has expanded considerably since the time when bread was a pillar of every meal. Besides, families are smaller. “How can it help from going stale when people are only having two children?” says Breen.

As I called friends and town clerks looking for home bakers to interview it became evident that there is a clear generational divide. And as older women pass on, there’s some sense that the tradition of home baking could be lost. But the bread will stay—bakeries like Breen’s or Paradise will see to that, and people will still bake, even if it’s not out of necessity.

For Cara Lee Coleman of St. John’s, baking is a treat, something to do when the time can be found. She uses a recipe from her great-grandmother, adapted by her mother who added wheat germ and bran in a nod toward nutrition.

She doesn’t bake every day, nor every week, but when she does, it’s impossible to escape the matrilineal connection. Her children aren’t quite old enough to stand at the kitchen counter, but when they are, you can bet they’ll be up there helping.

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