Called “brown bread” by my grandfather’s generation, it appeared only at special family celebrations, especially those involving breakfast. Like my family, its ingredients originated in far-flung places. The intense sweetness comes from molasses, made from sugarcane, originating in New Guinea; Chris Columbus himself transplanted ‘cane to the West Indies in 1493. Wheat resulted from the lucky cross between two grasses growing in ancient Mesopotamia (Syria, Iraq, or Iran) followed by the even luckier doubling that hybrid’s chromosomes; it is now grown in temperate climates everywhere. Only yeast, readily available in the air that we breathe, can be truly considered native to any place the bread is baked.
Graham Bread itself “rose” from a New England social, moral, and spiritual reform movement of the 1830s. During that decade, Presbyterian minister-turned-health-crusader Sylvester Graham preached sexual moderation (if not abstinence), vegetarianism, and the near-holy wholesomeness of whole-grain wheat bread. His 1837 Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making decreed that such bread, when baked by a stay-at-home wife and mother and eaten with cold butter, leads to physical well-being, spiritual growth, family stability—pretty much everything everybody wanted and “kneaded.” (WARNING: The bread had to be cooled for at least twelve hours before consumption, so as to dissipate its “ardor.”)
Strictly regimented Grahamite boarding houses served their guests Graham Bread and Graham Crackers at precise six-hour intervals. But no between-meal snacks and certainly no S’mores—the raw sugar of marshmallows and that oh-so-stimulating love drug, chocolate, were strictly verboten.
But I didn’t know any of this while growing up. I just knew that Graham Bread was a treat, a special part of our lives wherever we lived. Uncle Jim always cut the crusts off and ate them separately. My cousins like theirs toasted. I prefer mine still warm from the oven (Sorry, Reverend Graham!), smothered in chunky peanut butter. Because with peanut butter, the universal goodness of Graham Bread encircles the globe: taken from their Bolivian homeland to Africa and the Far East, peanuts returned to the Western Hemisphere (and George Washington Carver) with the slave trade—and a soon-to-be-popular African name, nguba.
So here it is, the late-arriving, totally mongrelized Davenport family’s sole contribution to Alabama culture and cuisine. Find my mother’s recipe and helpful baking hints at www.AlabamaHeritage.com. And buon appetito!
This feature was previously published in Issue 104, Spring 2012.
About the Author
Larry Davenport is a professor of biology at Samford University, Birmingham. This column, running since 1993, inspired Davenport’s award-winning book, Nature Journal (University of Alabama Press, 2010).