New England Farm Stories, circa 1912

Check out this hilarious farm story about salt-rising bread gone wrong.

article image
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A loaf of salt-rising bread.

A series of stories published in 1912 by C.A. Stephens, a prolific short story author, concerned four or five cousins, all orphaned due to the Civil War, and who then came to live with Gram and Gramp on their New England farm. This was one of those tales which I’ve compressed to fit into a blog format. — Sam Moore

Mug Bread

“Mug-bread” — the best flour bread ever made, I still believe.

But the making and the baking of it are not easy, and a failure with mug-bread is something awful!

The reader may not know it as mug-bread, for that was a local name, confined largely to our own Maine homestead because Gram always started it in an old tall, white, gold banded mug, that held more than a quart. It has been called milk-yeast bread, patent bread, and salt-rising bread; and it has also been stigmatized by several more offensive epithets, bestowed, I am told, by irate housewives who lacked the skill and genius to make it.

About once in four days, generally at night, Gram would take two tablespoonfuls of corn-meal, ten of boiled milk, and half a teaspoonful of salt, mix them well in that mug, and set it behind the kitchen stove pipe, where it would keep uniformly warm overnight. She covered the mug with an old coffee-pot lid, which just fitted it.

The next morning, a peep into the mug would show whether the little “eyes” had begun to open in the mixture or not. Here was where housewifely skill came in. Those eyes must be opened just so wide, and there must be just so many of them, or else it was not safe to proceed. It might be better to throw the setting away and start new. Gram knew as soon as she had looked at it. If the omens were favorable, a cup of warm water and a quantity of carefully warmed flour were added, and a batter made of about the consistency for fritters. This was set up behind the stove again, to rise till noon.

More flour was then added and the dough carefully worked and set for a third rising. About three o’clock it was put in large, round, shallow tin pans and baked in an even oven.

The resulting loaves–we called them “cart-wheels”–were about a foot in diameter, an inch thick, and yellow-brown and crackery. The rule at Gram’s table was a “cart-wheel” to a boy, with all the fresh Jersey butter and canned berries or fruit that he wanted with it.

Sometimes, however, the mug would disappear in the morning, and an odor as of sulphuretted hydrogen would linger about, till the kitchen windows were raised and the fresh west wind admitted.

That meant that a failure had occurred; the wrong microbe had obtained possession of the mug. In such cases Gram acted promptly and said little. She was always reticent concerning mug-bread. Ellen and Theodora shared the old lady’s reticence. Ellen, in fact, could never be persuaded to eat it, good as it was. “I know too much about it,” she would say. “It isn’t nice.”

Beyond doubt, when “mug-bread” goes astray at about the second rising, the consequences are depressing. If its little eyes fail to open and the batter takes on a greasy aspect, with a tendency to crawl and glide about, no time should be lost. Open all the windows at once and send the batter promptly to the swill-barrel. It is useless to dally with it. You’ll be sorry if you do. When it goes wrong, it is utterly depraved.

Once, when Gram and the Old Squire were away from home, Aunt Nabbie and Uncle Pascal came unexpectedly from Philadelphia. They had sent a letter, but it had failed to reach us, so the first we knew of their visit was when they drove into the yard with a livery team from the village.

The unexpected arrival upset us all, particularly Ellen and Theodora, who had to bear the brunt of grandmother’s absence, get tea, see to the spare rooms and do everything else. Our two-story farmhouse was comfortable and big, and we had plenty of everything, but Uncle Mowbray was reputed to be very fussy and particular about his food.

They came just at dusk. We boys were doing the chores. The girls were getting supper. Theodora had resolved to try her hand at a batch of “mug-bread” for the next day, and had set the old mug up for it.

Aunt Nabbie smoothed away their anxieties, and helped to make all comfortable, so we got through the evening better than had at first seemed likely, and in the morning the girls rose at five and tried to hurry that “mug-bread” along, so as to have some of it for dinner, for they found that they were short of bread.

Ellen thought that they had better not attempt the risky experiment, but should start some hop-yeast bread. Theodora, however, peeped into the old mug, saw encouraging eyes in it, and resolved to go on. They mixed it up with the necessary warm water and flour and set it carefully back for the second rising. Soon, however, it began to perfume the kitchen.

If they had not been hard pressed and flurried that morning, the girls would have thrown it out. Instead, they saw that it was rising a little and–hoping that it would yet pull through–worked in more flour and soda, and hurried four loaves of it into the oven to bake. A horrible odor presently filled the place. Stale eggs would have been sweet beside it. It captured the whole house and Aunt Nabbie, in the sitting-room, perceived it and came rustling out to give motherly advice and assistance.

And, just then, the kitchen door leading to the front piazza opened and in walked Uncle Pascal, who had been out in the garden looking at the fruit.

When that awful odor smote him he stopped short, sniffed and turned up his nose.

“Is it sink spouts?” he gasped. “Are the traps out of order?”

“No, no, Pascal!” said Aunt Nabbie, in a low tone, trying to quiet him. “It’s only bread.”

“Bread!” cried Uncle Mowbray, with a glance of rank suspicion at the two girls. “Bread smelling like that!”

Just then Ellen saw a white blob in the shadow of the kitchen stove and caught open the oven door.

It was that mug-bread dough! It had crawled out of the tins into the oven–crawled under the oven door onto the kitchen floor, where it made a viscous puddle, and was now trying to crawl out of sight under the wood-box.

Aunt Nabbie burst out laughing; she couldn’t help it. Then she tried to turn Uncle Mowbray out.

But no, he must stand there and talk about it. He was one of those men who are always peeping round the kitchen, to see if the women are doing things right.

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