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MUG-BREAD, PONES AND JOHNNY-REB TOAST
To this day I recall with what a zest my appetite returned after that last attack of homesickness, and how good the farm food tasted. That day, too, Gram had "mug-bread," and for supper pones made into Johnny-reb toast. But these, perhaps, are unheard-of dishes to many readers.
The pones were simply large, round, thin corn-meal cakes baked in a fritter-spider in a hot oven. I have lately written to Cousin Ellen, who now lives in the far Northwest, to ask her just how they used to make those pones at the old farm. She has replied lightly that for a batch of pones, they merely took a quart of yellow corn-meal, two tablespoonfuls of wheat flour, a teaspoonful of salt and half a teaspoonful of soda, all well stirred to a thin batter in boiling-hot water. This batter was then poured into large fritter-spiders, forming thin sheets, and baked yellow-brown in a hot oven. To make these pones into "Johnny-reb toast," they were basted while still hot with butter, then moistened plentifully with Jersey milk which was half cream, allowed to stand five minutes, then served still warm.
The recipe, I may add, came from Virginia in 1862, being brought home to Maine by one of my uncles, who lived for a time in an Old Dominion family, despite all the asperities of the War. From the same sunny homeland of historic Presidents we obtained the recipe for a marvellously good spider-cake, but that came later, as I shall relate in due course.
As a hungry boy I used sometimes to think that pones and "Johnny-reb toast" were pretty nearly worth the War to us!
Yet neither of these ever came quite up to "mug-bread" — the best flour bread ever made, I still verily 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 and vicinity. It has been called milk-yeast bread, patent bread, milk-emptyings bread and salt-rising bread; and it has also been stigmatized by several opprobrious and offensive epithets, bestowed, I am told, by irate housewives who lacked the skill and genius to make it.
We named it "mug-bread" because Gram always started it in an old porcelain mug; a tall, white, lavender-and-gold banded mug, that held more than a quart, but was sadly cracked, and, for safety's sake, was wound just above the handle with fine white silk cord.
That mug was sixty-eight years old, and that silk cord had been on it since 1842. Its familiar kitchen name was "Old Hannah." I suspect that the interstices of this ancient silk string were the lurking-places of that delightful yeast microbe that gave the flavor to the bread. For there was rarely a failure when that mug was used.
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 on the low mantel-shelf, behind the kitchen stove funnel, where it would keep uniformly warm overnight. She covered in the top of the mug with an old tin coffee-pot lid, which just fitted it.
When we saw "Old Hannah" go up there, we knew that some mug-bread was incubating, and, if all worked well, would be due the following afternoon for supper. For you cannot hurry mug-bread.
The next morning, by breakfast-time, 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, or else to let it stand till noon. Gram knew as soon as she had looked at it. If the omens were favorable, a cup of warm water and a variable quantity of carefully warmed flour were added, and a batter made of about the consistency for fritters. This was set up behind the funnel 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 tins and baked in an even oven.
The favorite loaves with us were "cart-wheels," formed by putting the dough in large, round, shallow tin plates, about a foot in diameter. When baked, the yellow-brown, crackery loaf was only an inch thick. 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 rather suddenly in the morning, and an odor as of sulphureted 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. It had unspeakable contingencies.
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 will be sorry if you do. When it goes wrong, it is utterly depraved.
I remember an experience which Theodora and Ellen had with mug-bread on one occasion, when Gram was away from home. Aunt Nabbie and Uncle Pascal Mowbray came on from Philadelphia while she and the Old Squire were gone.
Aunt Nabbie was grandmother's sister, and she and Uncle Mowbray had been talking all that season of coming to visit us. But September had been spoken of as the time they were coming.
They changed their minds, however. Uncle Pascal desired to look after some business venture of his in Portland, and decided to come in August. It was a somewhat sudden change of plan, but they sent us a letter the day before they started, thinking that we would get it and meet them at the railway station.
Now, all dear city cousins, aunts, uncles and the rest of you who visit your country relatives, summer or winter, hear me! Do not hold back your letter telling them you are coming till the day before you start.
Nine times out of ten they will not get it. You will get there before the letter does; and the chances are that you will have to provide your own transportation for the six or ten miles from the railway station to the farm, and you will think that distance longer than all the rest of the journey.
Most likely, too, you will find the farmer gone to a Grange meeting; and by the time you have sat round the farmhouse door on your trunk till he gets back at sunset, you will be homesick, and maybe hungry.
Also — for there are two sides to the matter — your country brother and his wife will be troubled about it. So send your letter at least a week ahead.
The first we knew of the coming of Uncle Pascal and Aunt Nabbie, they drove into the yard with a livery team from the village, and an express wagon coming on behind with their trunks.
Besides Uncle and Aunt, there was a smiling, dark-haired youth with them, a grand-nephew of Uncle Mowbray, named Olin Randall, whom we had heard of often as a kind of third or fourth cousin, but had never seen. He had never beheld Maine before, and was regarding everything with curiosity and a little grin of condescension.
That grin of his nearly upset us, particularly Ellen and "Doad," who for a hundred reasons wished to make a very favorable impression on Uncle and Aunt Mowbray and all the family. I nearly forgot to mention that Uncle Mowbray was reputed very fussy and particular about his food.
Our two-story farmhouse was comfortable and big, and we had plenty of everything; but of course it was not altogether like one of the finest houses in Philadelphia. For Uncle Mowbray was a wealthy man, one of those thrifty, prosperous Philadelphia merchants of the era ending with the Civil War. He never let a dollar escape him.
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 "Old Hannah" up for it.
The unexpected arrival upset us all a good deal, 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. And then there was Olin, mildly grinning. His presence disturbed the girls worse than everything else. But Aunt Nabbie smoothed away their anxieties, and helped to make all comfortable.
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, with other things, so as to have some of it for dinner, for they found that they were short of bread.
Ellen, I believe, 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.
Perhaps they had a little hotter fire than usual, perhaps they had hurried it a shade too much, or — well, you can "perhaps" anything you like with milk-yeast bread. At all events, it took the wrong turn and began to perfume the kitchen.
If they had not been hard pressed and a little flurried that morning, the girls would probably have thrown it out. Instead, they took it down, 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.
Then it was that the unleavened turpitude of that hostile microbe displayed the full measure of its malignity. A horrible odor presently filled the place. Stale eggs would have been Araby the Blest beside it.
The girls hastily shut the kitchen doors, but doors would not hold it in. It captured the whole house. Aunt Nabbie, in the sitting-room, perceived it and came rustling out to give motherly advice and assistance.
And it chanced that while Theodora was confidentially explaining it to her, the kitchen door leading to the front piazza opened, and in walked Uncle Pascal, with Olin behind him. They had been out in the garden looking at the fruit, and had come back to get Aunt Nabbie to see the bees.
When that awful odor smote them they stopped short. Uncle Mowbray was a fastidious man. He 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 is only bread."
"Bread!" cried Uncle Mowbray, with a glance of rank suspicion at the two girls. "Bread smelling like that!"
Just then Ellen discovered something white, which appeared to be mysteriously increasing in size, in the shadow on the back side of the kitchen stove. After a glance she caught open the oven door.
It was that mug-bread dough! It had crawled — crawled out of the tins into the oven — crawled down under the oven door to the kitchen floor, where it made a viscous puddle, and was now trying, apparently, to crawl out of sight under the wood-box.
Aunt Nabbie burst out laughing; she could not 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. But Olin scudded out after one look, and the girls saw him under one of the Balm o' Gilead trees, shaking and laughing as if he would split.
Poor Doad and Nell! That was a dreadful forenoon for them. As youthful housekeepers they felt, themselves disgraced beyond redemption. In three years they had not recovered from it, and would cringe when any one reminded them of Uncle Mowbray and the mug-bread.