Clap-bread; or, baking towards a sense of peace

Clap-bread; or, baking towards a sense of peace

All weekend, I’ve been baking and making — helping my daughter cut out and assemble the sloper for the prom dress she wants to make all by herself, so we can check the fit before cutting into the good fabric. We have trays full of small cream puff shells cooling, with the idea that this will be dinner, filled with savory shrimp filling, and dessert, filled with coffee and vanilla ice creams and drizzled with chocolate sauce.

And we’ve tried an experiment: clap-bread — inspired by the lovely scene in Mary Barton in which Alice, in her humble cellar dwelling, hosts Mary and Margaret to tea:

How busy Alice felt! it was not often she had any one to tea; and now her sense of the duties of a hostess were almost too much for her. She made haste home, and lighted the unwilling fire . . . Then she put on her pattens, and went to fill her kettle at the pump in the next court, and on her way she borrowed a cup . . . Half an ounce of tea and a quarter of a pound of butter went far to absorb her morning’s wages; but this was an unusual occasion. . . . The two chairs drawn out for visitors, and duly swept and dusted; an old board arranged with some skill upon two old candle boxes set on end. . . ; a little, very little round table, put just before the fire, which by this time was blazing merrily; her unlacquered ancient, third-hand tea-tray arranged with a black tea-pot, two cups with a red and white pattern, and one with the old friendly willow pattern. . . ; all these preparations complete, Alice began to look about her with satisfaction, and a sort of wonder what more could be done to add to the comfort of the evening. . . . she pulled towards her an old deal box, and took thence a quantity of the oat bread of the north, the “clap-bread” of Cumberland and Westmoreland, and descending carefully with the thin cakes, threatening to break to pieces in her hand, she placed them on the bare table, with the belief that her visitors would have an unusual treat in eating the bread of her childhood. . . . The candle was ready to be lighted, the kettle boiled, the tea was awaiting its doom in its paper parcel; all was ready.

Never having made it before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found this excellent recipe and explanation, and — after using the food processor to chop my old-fashioned oats fine, since I didn’t have Scottish oats (Bob’s Red Mill has clear explanations of the difference between them) — made up some lovely “cakes.” (In the US, you might more properly call them crackers than bread or cakes.)

I slathered a little butter on a warm one and then added some strawberry jam. The verdict: they have a delicate oatiness that is quite pleasant, if you are not looking for some kind of flavor explosion. The strawberry jam overwhelms the oat flavor, so I might prefer something softer like red currant or rosehip. Or just lots of good butter. I like the crunch.

My daughter’s happy assessment: “it’s not hardtack!” — which she and her brother once made for extra-credit for a school project, and which was pronounced completely inedible.

I am going to take them to class on Tuesday, for our first day discussing Mary Barton. I only made a single recipe, unsure how they would turn out. I ended up with fifteen of the delicate thin cakes, and ultimately decided that I wouldn’t make a second batch. It seems more in keeping with the clemming (starving) working-class characters in this novel, who in scene after scene are so carefully sharing the little they have with one another, to ask my twenty-two students to break these into pieces for sharing.

Apparently this is a sort of bread that one can keep almost indefinitely in a storage box that is not airtight. There is something soothing about having baked using a hundreds-of-years-old recipe, one with humble ingredients, something that would have felt a treat to Alice in her cellar and that tastes somewhat bland to a modern palate.

I have been asking my students all semester to try to savor their reading. To approach the works on the syllabus with a slowness that engages the prose, and a willingness to sit a while. I have given them weekly “reading situation experiments,” in which I offer them prompts (read by candlelight; read without any electronics within reach for an hour; read aloud to someone else). This week’s prompt is to make yourself a fancy snack, on a nice plate, something that takes you some time and care to assemble, even if you don’t need to cook to produce it, and then to nibble slowly as you read. I want them to think about eating and reading as different sorts of nourishment.

I am not sure they will all like the clap-bread. It is a little dry, and deeply modest in its flavor. But I am going to ask them to try to savor it anyway. To think about what it means for this to be an “unusual treat.”

College students (and faculty) have had a dreadful week, a week of trauma that has left many of us still feeling raw and unmoored in the wake of the shooting at Michigan State University. Perhaps breaking bread, its quiet crispness, its quiet flavor, the act of sharing a morself, may help us heal. I can only hope.

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