Everyone has a weird food from their childhood they just can't let go of. For some, it's a novelty cereal (Rice Krispies Treats cereal 4eva!). For others, it's processed American cheese slices (Velveeta nachos, anyone?). But me? I'll take brown bread in a can any day — with or without raisins, because I'm wild like that.
It's known as Boston brown bread, though the only kind I ever ate was made by B & M Baked Beans in Maine, and we always called it "bread in a can." It's a super-dense, dark brown bread made with wheat and rye flour. It's lightly spiced, moist thanks to buttermilk and sweetened with rich, dark molasses. Sometimes it has raisins, always it's marked with rings from the can, like that love-it-or-hate-it cranberry sauce.
Bread in a can is similar to an English pudding in that it's steamed instead of baked like a traditional bread. Apparently the tradition comes from the Pilgrims, who made baked beans and steamed brown bread in brick ovens on Saturdays. The food would be left in the oven overnight, still warm enough to enjoy on Sunday mornings after church, when cooking was prohibited.
Whatever its history, the childhood food I dream about most (aside from my mom's kale soup, of course) is a thick slice of buttered brown bread from a can.
Never mind that I'm a food writer who's supposed to be on the cutting edge of the latest culinary trends — there's something about this old-timey, shelf-stable brown bread that I just can't shake despite all the negative connotations that come with cans.
Got canned? You're fired. On the can? Taking a dump. Canned humor? Tired, rote. Canned meat? Just wrong (no matter what the Spam ad I've recently been served approximately 1,000 times a day on Hulu tries to tell me).
But canned bread is different. Imagine being a kid on a snowy January day in New England. You play all afternoon, building snow forts and sucking on icicles, then come inside when the sun has set, your fingers pink and numb from the cold. On the table? A humble but hearty classic New England meal: hot dogs, maple and brown sugar baked beans and two perfectly round slices of B & M brown bread. Lightly toasted, spread with sweet cream butter and steaming hot, canned brown bread was enough to erase all thoughts of hot chocolate from my mind... for a little while, anyway.
Best of all, the next morning there was sure to be a few slices left over, the perfect breakfast to warm me up for another day of snowball fights or, in the summer, the fuel I needed to successfully bound and crash into the waves at the local beach without actually drowning.
These days I live in California, and canned brown bread is hard to find. And even though I make almost everything from scratch, including regular sandwich bread, I've never tried making bread in a can at home. Maybe I'm afraid it won't live up to the real thing — or afraid that the real thing isn't all it's made out to be in my memories. But either way, when I'm feeling nostalgic and missing home, brown bread in a can is never far from my mind.
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