by Ryan Hallstrom
I woke up to the sound of dishes clanging and eggs sizzling on the old cast-iron skillet. I opened my eyes and waited for them to acclimate to the sunlight that snuck into the room through the open window.
As I walked down creaky stairs into the kitchen, I smelled the pungent aroma of salt-rising bread wafting from the toaster.
I sat down at the table and looked out at the barn where I knew my grandfather was feeding the cows, just as my ancestors had done every morning for hundreds of years. Grandma Jean cheerfully asked me how I slept as she handed me a plate of eggs, bacon, and the best part of the meal – two slices of salt-rising bread. Although I ate quickly (as all 8-year-old boys do) I relished every bite. Breakfast at the farm was always a special treat. After gulping down a glass of orange juice with a banana blended in, I bounded outside to “help” Grandpa with the chores.
Ten years later I was in another country, far from home. Until this point, I had never spent more than a few days at a time outside of the Southern Tier. Now I was in Russia on a two-year volunteer assignment. Everything in St. Petersburg, from the language, to the bright city lights, to the subway, to the money, was new to me.
During that first dark winter in Russia, I longingly looked for something to remind me of home. I searched in several local bakeries trying to find salt-rising bread. I never could find my cherished funky-smelling bread. Little did I know that it can only be found in a few rural communities in America.
Instead, I found scores of different varieties of rye bread. Slowly over the course of the two years, as I became more familiar with the Russian people I learned to love the powerful taste of Russian rye.
Soon, the two years were over and I was back home in New York. My mother asked what kind of foods I’d missed the most. “Salt-rising bread!” was one of the first things I blurted out. With some difficulty, my mom found a loaf of my favorite bread.
Just weeks later, I was thrust into yet another unfamiliar situation – college. Each time I came home on vacation from school out West, my Mom would ask the same question: “What do you want to eat that you can’t get at school?” Invariably, the answer was “salt-rising bread.”
Then, living in Boston, I once again embarked on a quest to find my favorite bread, and, once again, my search was in vain. Frustrated at coming home empty-handed, I decided to learn more about this cherished, yet elusive delicacy.
I called James Beiler, whose family runs Kum Essa, a bakery in Andover, NY, and Hillary Clovis, owner of Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, PA, and learned that salt-rising bread is a uniquely American invention with origins shrouded in mystery.
No one knows exactly where the recipe or the name for this unique bread came from. The only clues to its origins come from what we know about the early American settlers. It seems that the recipe was created out of necessity by pioneers in the region who didn’t have the luxury of store-bought ingredients. Without a source for yeast, settlers devised another way to make bread rise. The result was salt-rising bread.
Unlike ordinary bread, salt-rising bread depends on the growth of “wild” bacteria found in the potato or cornmeal starter, rather than yeast, to rise. Since this bacteria can behave unpredictably, even professional bakers find that there’s no guarantee that a salt-rising starter (also called a “raisin”) will result in a successful batch of bread.
“Salt-rising is the most complicated bread to make there is. Our ability to make payroll depends on a science experiment every night,” Clovis told me matter of factly. Beiler had a similar opinion: “Nobody can perfect it.”
Seemingly everything – the barometric pressure, slight changes in temperature, and the type of cornmeal used – can affect whether or not the starter will rise correctly. “It’s mind-blowing to think there’s not one other bread, not one other, that’s anything like it…,” I remember Clovis said.
With all of the complexities involved in the daunting, 18-hour process required to make a batch of bread, it’s not hard to imagine why baking salt-rising is becoming a lost art. The people with the experience and discerning eye necessary to bake salt-rising are dwindling in numbers.
Every time I come back to the familiar hills of the Southern Tier, I scour the shelves of grocery stores and bakeries, trying to gather ingredients to replicate the experience of early-morning breakfast with Grandma. I know it’s impossible. I know that it’s gone – the happy childhood days, the family farm, the creaky stairs, the cows, Grandma and Grandpa – all of it.
Except for, of course, salt-rising bread.