Editorial-A Good Day for Mug-Bread
There is a story in Old Squire's Farm in which C. A. Stephens tells of his grandmother's mug-bread, so named because it was started in a lavender- and gold-banded, white porcelain mug. (This bread is an old Yankee recipe and was also called milk-yeast bread, patent bread, milk-emptyings bread, and salt-rising bread. A recipe for the latter can be found in Beard on Bread.) In the evening his grandmother would mix "two tablespoons of cornmeal, ten of boiled milk, and half a teaspoonful of salt in that mug, and set it on the low mantel shelf behind the kitchen stove funnel, where it would keep uniformly warm overnight." At breakfast time, his grandmother would peer into the mug to see if the little "eyes" had begun to open in the mixture. If everything worked out as planned, water and flour were stirred in and the mixture was put back on the shelf to rise until lunchtime. It was baked into "cartwheels"-- foot-wide, yellow-brown loafs just an inch thick-- and served with fresh Jersey butter and all the canned berries a boy could eat. But some mornings, the jug would disappear suddenly, and a strong sulfurous smell would linger in the kitchen. In that case, the wrong microbe had "obtained possession of the mug." One never knew how it was going to turn out. It was this element of chance, the not-knowing that made that mug-bread taste so fine.
Even today, with standardized yeasts and flour, some breads rise faster than others, some rise higher, and some bake up lighter. The fifty loaves of bread we baked for the article on No-Knead Sandwich Bread in this issue proved that, although one can develop a standardized recipe that works admirably, no two loaves are exactly the same. Somehow, cooking, like everything else in life, is not an exact science. It is a bit of adventure and should be approached with a big helping of wild enthusiasm and risk taking. As Harriet Van Horne once said, "Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all."
Growing up on a Vermont farm, I found that the unknown was a constant neighbor, sharpening the appetite for a host of activities from hunting to fishing, from hitching up a new team to boiling off maple sap to make sugar. The sap might run well or it might not, the fish might be biting or not, a six-point buck might walk right past your tree stand or not, and that new team might hitch up well together or it might not, turning your wagon over in a ditch or running your seeder into a pile of rocks. Like the New England weather, one just never did know what was in store. Our family used to hike up to the top of our mountain near the small abandoned barn on the ridge to pick blackberries. Some years we would get a bucketful and other years, even when the weather was good, we'd get no more than a quart of hard, small berries. It was a chance we were used to taking. But when the berries were fat and plentiful, the sky was bluer, the air scented more sweetly with fern and pine, as if all of the good memories of the lean years were collapsed into that one enchanted summer.
These days, our small Vermont town has a "coming of age" ritual, which also has unexpected outcomes. There is a cave at the mouth of the Green River up in Beartown, its entrance hidden by a patch of stinging nettles. Dads take their sons and daughters through the cave when they think they're ready to negotiate the long, dark passage. Last summer it was time for Whitney, my seven-year-old daughter, to make her first visit. She is a bit shy and never the first to rush into the unknown. I was apprehensive about the trip.
With some friends, we packed a bunch of local kids into the flatbed of a large Chevy pickup. The truck was left at the end of the road, and we walked up through an abandoned camp, then to the mouth of the cave, where each child was given a candle. I went first, with five kids in line behind me, Whitney in the middle of the pack. The cave starts out narrow-- about five feet high-- and the stream that runs through it was deep and searingly cold. In the weak half-light of the candles, we scrambled back to a large, circular room, where we climbed up a funnel to the next level. The cave narrowed considerably at this point, and I made my way to the end, a small opening where the water bubbled up from a deep spring. I looked back and saw my daughter's mud-streaked face in the flickering glow. She looked confident, more mature than usual, and gave me a quick, intimate smile that said "I did it." I was proud, of course, but also filled with the wild joy of the unexpected. It was the journey together that provided the yeast that day, struggling through the dark cave, not knowing if she would make it all the way to the end. Next year it would be her younger sister's turn, but that could wait. On that hot August day, the mug-bread had turned out just fine.