By Kathleen Lynch
There was something wrong about the package that was delivered to me at work one early spring morning years ago. It was addressed to me, and the return address also had my surname. But I didn’t recognize the name as a family member, and I didn’t know anyone in the town in Connecticut on the address. So I opened it with some sense that this package wasn’t intended for me, and that sense was amplified when I found inside a pair of house slippers, a zip-top plastic baggie that seemed to hold some dry ingredients, a recipe for Irish soda bread, and a note signed “mom.”
Why did some other Kathleen Lynch’s mom send me her soda bread recipe, never mind the slippers? That was the question I asked when I found a phone number online and called to report that this mom’s package had gone to the wrong Kathleen Lynch. In conversation, the mom assured me that she had addressed the package to her daughter correctly, and that said daughter was in Washington for a congressional internship, staying on East Capitol Street. A closer look at the package’s address confirmed that Kathleen was staying right across the street from my workplace, Folger Shakespeare Library, and that the package had been misdelivered, not misaddressed.
I rewrapped the package, added a note of apology, and left it on the doorstep of a townhouse across the street. I must have asked about her family’s soda bread recipe, noting that mine featured raisins to her caraway seeds. The next day, I had a charming note in return, discussing that Kathleen’s grandmother’s approach to soda bread, “equal parts deference and rebellion towards the old way.” What we shared was an appreciation for a simple bread, easily prepared, best eaten warm out of the oven, and laden with memories of our grandmothers, and for me, a recipe I will always call Aunt Pat’s. But were either of our breads true soda breads? I knew both could be dismissed as “tea cakes,” not soda breads. For some, it is an adamantly held distinction.
Intrigued, I wanted to know more about the history of soda bread in Ireland. In particular, I wanted to know if the oral history was true that I had heard many decades ago when I spent a year at university in Cork: the British government denied yeast to the Irish. In any Irish cookbook I pick up now, I read the headnote to breads to see if they introduce the history. Though Colman Andrews prefaces his Country Cooking of Ireland with “A Note on Geopolitics,” addressing the still contested terminology for national boundaries and county names, it does not address the specific trade regulations or coercive practices that framed rural subsistence diets. In My Irish Table, local chef Cathal Armstrong calls these “quick breads,” and notes that “yeast would have been too expensive for people in the countryside in the time of the British occupation” anyway.
Whatever the longer history of Irish hearth-based home cooking of breads in ‘bastibles’ or cast-iron, three-legged pots, the soda bread recipe took its recognizable shape in the mid-nineteenth century with the introduction of baking soda into Ireland. Combined with sour milk or buttermilk, this agent worked to create “a very light and palatable leavened wheat bread that can easily be produced at home,” as Regina Sexton reported in A Little History of Irish Food. And as Armstrong adds, “most households in Ireland have their own recipe for quick breads passed down through the generations.” In stressing ease and simple ingredients and tools, these authors all lightly skirt the question of impoverishment in old Ireland. For the spread of this breadmaking through Ireland also tracks the years of famine, death, sporadic relief efforts (including by English Quakers), the introduction of maize meal by the British government to offset the failing potato crops, and mass emigration.
I still don’t know the documented history of yeast in Irish baked goods. None of Sexton’s historical recipes in her “Cereals” section include it. I do understand how the oral history holds open the wounds of oppression. At the same time, I see welcome new cooking traditions taking hold in Ireland. They are based on the riches of land and seas, and often influenced by the work of the Allen family at Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in County Cork. Each of the authors above gives credit and expresses gratitude to that family. These new traditions speak powerfully to the work of nourishment and healing that food can do.
Memories are slippery things, formed and reformed over time and across experiences. In looking for a printed copy of “Aunt Pat’s” soda bread, I had to consider if I shouldn’t start calling this “Aunt Maureen’s” recipe, given that Aunt Pat—my mother’s sister—told me once that she adopted her recipe from Aunt Maureen—my father’s sister. So maybe it’s a Lynch recipe rather than a Gibbons one. On finding multiple printed copies of a recipe I haven’t consulted in years, I was also taken aback that Aunt Pat listed shortening as the fattening agent. That doesn’t make the bread any more satisfying to a purist, but it holds the memories of poverty closer. Or does it only speak to its time? Kathleen wrote to me that her mother made so many substitutions in the name of a healthier loaf that the “result was a dry, unpredictable rock.”
If in its purest form, soda bread does without even sugar and butter, is that not also a reminder of resourcefulness of the subsistence farmer? If Kathleen and I and all the sisters and daughters of our economically-deprived foremothers add those embellishments for a richer loaf, don’t we do it to carry forward traditions rather than be bound by them? In sitting down to a cup of tea and a slice of steaming hot soda bread with generous dabs of butter, don’t we keep their memories alive?
Irish Soda Bread
- 4 cups flour
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- ½ cup butter
- 2 cups seedless raisins
- 1 ½ cup buttermilk (or substitute whole milk with 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar per cup milk)
- 1 egg
- ½ tsp. baking soda
Simmer raisins in pan of hot water. Mix and sift flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Work in butter with fingertips until it resembles coarse corn meal. Stir in drained raisins. Combine buttermilk, egg, baking soda. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just moistened. Do not overmix. Bake in greased medium baking dish at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.
I think of this as my Grandma Gibbons’ soda bread recipe, and I’ve adapted it from the recipe my Aunt Pat contributed to her garden club cookbook years ago. But Aunt Pat tells me she took it from my Aunt Maureen on the Lynch side of the family. So I pass it along from both the Gibbonses and the Lynches of County Mayo.
Kathleen Lynch researches and writes about the Protestant spiritual autobiography and the communities of devotion that gave rise to them. She is the executive director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She tweets @thatklynch. Her only regret about a year spent in Cork, Ireland as an undergraduate is that it predated the opening of the butter museum there.