West Virginia's 2nd - Ashes and Salt
September 11th, 2017, 9:00 a.m., our plane, destined for Charleston, W. VA, tipped its wings over the Pentagon building at almost the exact same time the people in the planes that day were writing their goodbye texts. The sky was almost as blue.
From the plane windows looking over the shining waters and spiculated tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, America seemed not to have dimmed as the light of which Whitman sang. And yet, the assault the hijackers made on our naive belief that this country is universally beloved and unassailable seems now to have been just the beginning of a stumbling reckoning. There have been the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, uneven, imperfect attempts to be the world’s first responders to terrorism and despotism. This year feels as if we are starting a reckoning with the demons that lit the fuses of Montgomery, Birmingham, and Ferguson.
Has Russia permanently shaken belief in American systems? Will wealth disparagement undermine democracy? Will our planet survive the free-for-all the Trump administration is offering corporate interests? N. Korea. And more. This 9/11 didn’t feel much easier than that one.
Nicie and I were headed to West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District to meet two young Democrats running for Congress, Talley Sergent and Aaron Scheinberg, to meet citizens, to understand the district. In Charleston, W. VA, we would learn the story of Blair Mountain. Labor is another demon America never buried, although the story of Blair Mountain is testament to how industry forces have historically tried to silence it. The Battle of Blair Mountain is the largest armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War, but it has only been recently included in history books, after oral accounts of the battle began to emerge in the 1960’s.
The Appalachian Mountain range divides the Eastern seaboard from the Midwest. These mountains rise and swell like rolling ocean, only this is coal, Marcellus shale, and minerals 480 million years old. An ancient sea called the Iapetus Ocean lies beneath the Appalachian range. It was an ocean long before North America was a continent, when a series of orogenies - times when land masses converge and fold up upon each other to create mountain ranges - blended three continents to become mostly one. In that geological force, the Appalachian mountains pressed up to the skies.
In the late 18th century, European arrivals learned from Native Americans - and salt craving wildlife - about the briny residue of that long lost ocean beneath the Appalachian mountains. The first mining industry in W. Virginia was actually salt, which became an important economic engine for the state, and the first time W. Virginians looked down into their mountains for purpose. In the 20th century it was discovered that chlorine and caustic acid used in World War I could be manufactured from that W. Virginia salt brine, creating what is still today a vigorous chemical industry, and still accesses W. Virginia rock salt. Coal would come later, but that industry’s first mining lessons came from mining salt.
As interesting as salt mining is, the recipe offered here - W. Virginia Salt Rising Bread - has nothing to do with W. Virginia salt, except it probably fueled the miners in those early years. Literally created in W. Virginia “hollers,” valleys in dialect, Salt Rising Bread dates back to the middle of the 18th century, and is probably much more authentically American than apple pie.
Jenny (Genevieve) Bardwell and Susan Ray Brown own the Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania, just over the W. Virginia border. These women are committed to preserving the tradition of Salt Rising Bread. For twenty-five years, they have been baking 500-700 loaves a week. Customers cry when the “risings” fail, and sometimes they do, and there is no Salt Rising Bread that week. I spoke to Bardwell and Brown by phone, and also purchased their book, Salt Rising Bread, Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.
Salt Rising Bread has a uniquely delicious flavor. It has a denser crumb, like a good white bread, with a very faint acidity, kind of like an English Muffin Bread with what some people describe as a “cheesey” tang. James Furnas, in his book The Americans: a Social History of the United States, describes Salt Rising Bread this way, “when at its best, as if a delicately reared, unsweetened plain cake had had an affair with a Pont L’Eveque cheese.”
Salt Rising Bread should be more famous, except that it’s actually tricky to make. It’s sensitive. Lore says it can’t be made by a woman in a bad mood. The moon must be in the right quarter. It won’t rise if a young boy whistles in the wrong key or slams doors. Cats and dogs must be shut out of the room and girls are not allowed to giggle.
The extensively researched book places Salt Rising Bread’s origin story in Greenbriar County, W. Virginia, 1790. According to Bardwell and Brown, 18th and 19th century domestic bread making relied on leftover yeast from some local brewing process. Many of W. Virginia’s early settlers had no access to this yeast, as many of them were evangelicals, and opposed alcohol. Homemakers were already using “saleratus,” an early form of baking soda. Saleratus could be purchased in pharmacies, but was also found naturally in the potash, the remaining ashes of wood fires. Most likely someone combined the slightly “spoiled” milk and cornmeal mixture with potash or saleratus, to make a uniquely flavored, flat-topped bread. “Saleratus Bread” or “Salt-a-Raitus Bread” they called it. One theory says that eventually the name evolved through the W. Virginian dialect to become “Salt-Rising” bread. Another theory attributes the name to the pioneers leaving W. Virginia with the recipe; those women kept their starter warm in the salt bin that sat in the sun outside the wagon all day. The pinch of saleratus - or baking soda - in the recipe is not used as a leavener but to affect the fermenting process. It actually helps give Salt Rising Bread that distinctive flavor.
Salt Rising Bread is made with a starter, but differs from sourdough bread, also made with a starter, in a number of ways. Sourdough bread is made with wild yeast captured from the environment. The dough rises from the carbon dioxide emitted when those yeasts feed on sugars. That yeast, if properly fed, can live indefinitely.
Salt Rising Bread rises from the hydrogen that is emitted from bacteria that grows as the milk, cornmeal and flour are kept in very warm temperatures. The starter must be at a consistently warm temperature. The result of this hydrogen rise is a unique, dense, flavorful crumb and a characteristic flat topped loaf, as opposed to the larger holes in a carbon dioxide-raised sourdough loaf with a domed crust. A salt rising starter cannot be kept. Every batch of bread requires creating a new starter, a starter that is finicky. It likes very warm temperatures. It responds to seasonal changes. It doesn’t like it when temperatures hover just below or above freezing. Bardwell and Brown say that the week before Thanksgiving almost always means rising failures.
Salt Rising Bread may be the only bread honestly born on American soil. Bardwell and Brown looked hard into the European food cultures of Scotch, English and Germans settling in Appalachia, as well as slave kitchen traditions. None of these cultures include a bread recipe that rises with this technique, proving that no one carried the recipe into W. Virginia; it was most likely born in a W. Virginia holler.
The food writer Marion Cunningham introduced Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, to the mysteries of Salt Rising Bread. Waters reported, “it was absolutely perfect toast - it didn’t need anything on it, not even butter.”
Talley Sergent, who is running for Congress in W. Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, says that “W. Virginians know how to rise from the ashes and go do great things.” W. Virginia Salt Rising Bread, was literally raised from potash. Even their bread has risen from the ashes.
I tend to make sweeping gestures that connect food to politics, but sometimes that sweep is short. For its history, for its enigmatic nature, and for the toast, W. Virginia Salt Rising Bread deserves revival; this is bread to fuel a reckoning.
For more information on the work Bardwell and Brown are doing visit the Salt Rising Bread Project at www.saltrisingbread.net where you can also get information on purchasing their book.
I’m including the recipe from Bardwell and Brown’s book, which I have made successfully, but only after a consultation with Bardwell and Brown. Bardwell and Brown told me that the best way to keep the starter at a consistently warm temperature is to keep it in a yogurt maker which is then wrapped in a bath towel to hold in the heat. Crockpots are too hot; I tried. The yogurt maker has worked very well for me so far. I also keep the sponge in the yogurt maker during its rising. The most important advice here is to pay attention and be patient. My risings have taken up to fifteen hours, but I have a cold house. Sometimes the bread seems still very shallow, but I can see from the many holes that the dough has indeed risen. (I think I may have kneaded it too much, and will try for shorter kneads.) The flavor every time has been fabulous, particularly for toast. This sounds fussy, but honestly everyone has loved this loaf. There is nothing quite like the dense white crumb and faint “cheese” taste, particularly when crisped in a toaster.
Pearl Haines’s Salt Rising Bread Recipe
1/2 cup scalded milk
3 teaspoons cornmeal
1 teaspoon flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
Pour milk onto dry ingredients and stir.
Keep warm overnight until foamy, or until it looks broken and has a slightly sour smell. (This is best done in a yogurt maker wrapped in a bath towel.)
After the raisin’ has foamed and has a rotten cheese smell, in a medium-sized bowl add 2 cups of warm water to mixture, then enough flour (about 1½ cups) to make like a thin pancake batter.
Stir and allow to rise again until it becomes foamy. (I put this back in the yogurt maker, same way.) This usually takes about 2 hours, but mine has taken up to 4 hours.
Add 1 cup of warm water for each loaf up to 6 loaves (e.g., 6 cups of water makes 6 loaves of bread).
Butter 2 9” x 5” loaf pans. Add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Knead just until the dough becomes slightly smooth. Err on less kneading.
Form into loaves and brush the tops with butter.
Let loaves rise for 1.5 to 3 hours — sometimes longer if it is a cold day.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes - 1 hour or until loaves sound hollow when tapped. If they brown too quickly cover with aluminum foil until you are sure they are done.