The second in a series featuring our five 2018 Folklife Apprentice pairs. View the first feature here.
The West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program offers up to a $3,000 stipend to West Virginia master traditional artists or tradition bearers working with qualified apprentices on a year-long in-depth apprenticeship in their cultural expression or traditional art form. These apprenticeships aim to facilitate the transmission of techniques and artistry of the forms, as well as their histories and traditions.
Genevieve (Jenny) Bardwell and Susan Ray Brown of Mount Morris, Pennsylvania are leading an apprenticeship in salt rising bread with Amy Dawson of Lost Creek.
About Salt Rising Bread by Jenny Bardwell
Salt rising bread is a naturally fermented bread from the Appalachian region of the United States, originating over three hundred years ago. This bread is risen by wild bacteria captured on fermented corn and potatoes, which lend a delicious, complex “cheesy” flavor and a dense crumb. I learned how to bake salt rising bread from Pearl Haines, who had been making this type of bread for almost one hundred years in the locale of southwestern Pennsylvania. Pearl made this bread in a wooden bowl that her great-grandfather made in 1860. She learned this tradition from her mother, who learned from her mother, and so on back to the early 1800’s, which was as far back as Pearl remembered hearing about the history of this bread. Pearl was able to pass on her recipes and tips for baking a successful batch of salt rising, same as her elders had done for her.
The theory that I prefer about how this bread got its name, is a “salt” is placed in the “starter,” the primary stage of fermentation. The earliest recipe we found was from West Virginia in the 1790s. It describes adding potash to the starter. Potash is a type of chemist’s salt and derived from wood ashes. Pioneer women in early America were the first to use potash to raise their biscuits, gingerbread, and bread. Eventually, potash was manufactured and called saleratus. Pearl remembered a time when her grandmother used saleratus and pronounced it as “salta-ritus.” When Susan and I first heard Pearl say “salta-ritus,” it was an epiphany, because these words sounded like “salt-rising.”
The stories surrounding this bread capture valuable indigenous knowledge developed by the early pioneer women and showcases their ingenuity and perseverance.
Master salt rising bread baker Genevieve (Jenny) Bardwell holds an A.S. in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America, and a B.S. and M.S. in plant pathology from the University of Massachusetts. Jenny is the co-author of Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition and was the co-founder of Rising Creek Bakery in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania, both with Susan Ray Brown. Jenny has engaged in a deep, decades-long study of the unique labor-intensive Appalachian bread, focusing particularly on the scientific process and researching analog breads in other cultures. In 2017, she was awarded a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts to lead a salt rising bread apprenticeship with baker Antonio Archer.
Life has a chaotic and at the same time synchronous way of converging to form a person. Various individuals have influenced and led me to visualize what is possible to do with food such as my mother and grandmothers. When I left home other cooks and intellects helped broaden my vision of what is possible – Pearl Haines, Susan Brown, Ursula Daniels, William Woys Weaver. The art of baking salt rising bread came about through my passion for baking, wanting to please others from something I created, and an innate curious mind to figure out the mystery behind raising a bread dough risen without yeast. My husband has supported me to pursue baking and focus on this “female science culture” and the stories behind salt rising bread. Through Susan’s and my research to understand this naturally fermented bread, we have discovered two similarly fermented breads in other regions of the world: gergoush from Sudan, and arcatena from Cyprus. Both these breads utilize a similar fermentation as salt rising bread, except the gergoush starter is made of lentils, and the arcatena starter is made of chickpeas. I want to travel to these regions, hear the historical stories behind these traditional breads, and learn from the women in each locale before such indigenous knowledge is forgotten. By coming together as community to honor all three breads, we can explore connecting ideas and opportunities for the future.
Susan Ray Brown
Master salt rising bread baker Susan Ray Brown grew up in southern West Virginia, and her family roots go back nearly 300 years in her beloved Mountain State. She holds a B.A. in sociology/anthropology from West Virginia University. Susan is the co-author of Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition and was the co-founder of Rising Creek Bakery in Mount Morris, PA, both with Jenny Bardwell. Susan has engaged in a deep, decades-long study of the unique labor-intensive Appalachian bread, recording oral histories, gathering recipes, conducting scientific studies, and constantly experimenting through her own baking. Find more on her website at www.saltrisingbread.net.
One very special person is the reason that I sit here today writing about salt rising bread. That person is my grandmother, Katheryn Rippetoe Erwin. She made salt rising bread all of her life, as did her mother and her mother’s mother. I loved my grandmother, and I loved her salt rising bread. It is to grandmother that I owe my appreciation for this bread, and to her that I attribute my commitment to carry on this family tradition in any way that I can. Whether it was for church bazaars, PTA bake sales, funeral dinners, ailing neighbors, or just “baking day,” Katheryn Erwin’s salt rising bread was famous in her hometown of Ronceverte, West Virginia. The memories of those early morning awakenings to check to see if her starter had come, and her wonderful breakfasts of fried bacon, eggs-over-easy, and salt rising toast eaten at her kitchen table, stay with me and propel me year after year to keep the salt rising bread tradition alive.
We often say that salt rising bread is food for the body as well as for the soul. In fact, almost everyone who has eaten salt rising bread has a story to tell about it. These stories loom large in the hearts of those who love the bread. They are, indeed, another reason why the salt rising bread tradition lives on in our Appalachian homes and why it is so important and so special to preserve this bread and the stories that help keep this tradition alive.
Although my grandmother is no longer with us, I never butter a slice of salt rising toast without feeling her right there by my side.
Amy Dawson is a native of Lost Creek, West Virginia. She holds a B.S. in geology from West Virginia University and a J.D. from the College of Law at West Virginia University. She manages and co-owns Lost Creek Farm with her partner Mike Costello, hosting travelling kitchen/pop-up dinner events around the greater Appalachian region. In 2018, Lost Creek Farm was featured on CNN’s Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain.
I loved growing up in West Virginia. I was raised on a farm and feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity. A farm is a great place to be a kid. Unfortunately, I had to grow up and become a teenager, dissatisfied by everything. It was then that I decided that I wanted to get away and find something better. As luck would have it, I didn’t. Instead, I came to realize that what I had left behind was really something special, even if the rest of the world couldn’t see it. The food and culture that I grew up with are important to me, and I hope to learn all that I can to continue the traditions of this area. I have inherited many treasured recipes from my family, friends, and neighbors. I grew up eating salt rising bread, but had no one close to me from which I could learn that tradition. I am so glad to be learning how to make this bread.
Over the course of the last year, Susan, Jenny, and Amy have engaged in a thorough and extensive apprenticeship, experimenting with numerous salt rising bread recipes and techniques that Susan and Jenny have collected and documented over the years. They have also discussed issues of cultural heritage, considering accessibility and affordability of traditional Appalachian foodways, how the stories surrounding Appalachian foods are integral to the persistence of the traditions, and the importance of preserving the sense of place and personal identity of past tradition bearers who had the ingenuity to devise this method of making bread without yeast.
The trio has held free public classes on salt rising bread at locations across the state, including Clarksburg, Marlinton, Sutton, and Fairmont. Susan and Amy participated in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program “takeover” at New Story in Lewisburg, and Amy and Jenny presented on their work at the 2018 Appalachian Studies Conference in Cincinnati. Using funds from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Folk Arts Apprenticeship, and the West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship, Jenny and Susan produced a short documentary video on the history, process, and transmission of the salt rising bread tradition (see above).
The apprenticeship program grants are administered by the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston and are supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. West Virginia Folklife is dedicated to the documentation, preservation, presentation, and support of West Virginia’s vibrant cultural heritage and living traditions.