Every year, members of my family mark St. Patrick’s Day with loaves and loaves of Irish soda bread, which is partly an excuse to put currants from our many gardens into a quick bread for Spring. Where my grandparents live in western Montana, peppered with copper boom towns, massive St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are a holdover of the Irish who worked the mines alongside many other immigrant communities. Most Keenes I know aren’t Catholic, and we’re not connected to the nineteenth century Irish diaspora, so we’re not exactly using family recipes. Nevertheless, the soda bread is a way for my family to connect with each other and with communities in the Northwest. Baking bread is an excuse to celebrate, or maybe it’s the other way around.
I don’t make quick breads often. For me, the joy in baking is the artistry of leavening, which requires patience, dedication, attention. We rarely made them in baking school, too, focusing instead on the science of yeast. Quick breads, leavened by salt and acid releasing carbon dioxide when applied to heat and moisture, have their name for a reason.
Linda Civitello writes that the popularity of Irish soda bread in the US was in part because the 1847 famine in Ireland “produced an atypical diaspora. When Europeans migrated, the men usually came first, in order to work and then later send for their families. With the Irish, however, a disproportionate number of single women” emigrated (39), finding work in US and Canadian households as maids or cooks.
When visiting some Keenes near Portland recently, one of my cousins told me that when he was in high school, boys were not allowed to take home economics, but because he and his friends wanted to learn to cook, they struck a deal with the teacher to show them some of the basics during her grading hour.
This gendered division of culinary labor has deep roots. Civitello points out that women “have been connected to bread making since antiquity. . . The Old English word for ‘loaf,’ the staple of life, was hlaf. ‘Loaf-keeper,’ hlaford, became ‘lord’; loaf-kneader, hlafdige, became ‘lady'” (6).
For most of human history, bakers relied on yeast that was locally available, either from old batches of bread, the residue of beer brewing, or yeast cultures that had to be maintained. In ancient kitchens, “the presence of yeast was mostly accidental” (Gisslen 4) because any mash of grain collects those microscopic organisms on their own. In medieval European bakeries, it was common for cooks to tend ovens separately from bakers, whose professional focus was on leavening (5). Baking was often mysterious because its ingredients were difficult to quantify, recreate, and package. No two yeast sources were alike.
What makes Irish soda bread Irish isn’t the soda, though, which only became common in Ireland in the 1830s as a cheap alternative to yeast. The use of soda ash, or potash (potassium) from burned plant material, was common in the Americas centuries before. Instead, what makes Irish soda bread Irish is the buttermilk, which farmers had on hand to provide the acid necessary to act on the soda.
Louis Pasteur identified yeast in 1857, around the same time American chemists began packaging commercial baking powder to eliminate the need to add acid to leaven quick breads. These developments democratized bread, but they also made it much easier to commercialize and monetize.
By the time I was in high school, it was a given that baking is a science, not an art. My own high school cooking class was taught by a former military man from the South. A decade later, in baking school, I found myself disappointed that it wasn’t the art of baking I was being taught, but the science of cost efficiency. I was being trained to be a good employee, not a skilled baker.
It’s almost a cliche to distinguish baking from cooking by the chemistry involved in the former, which itself is false because all cooking involves chemistry. In other respects, distinguishing cooks from bakers is also gendered.
There’s a scene in the 2021 film Pig in which Chef Feld, played by Nicholas Cage, reconnects with a baker, Helen, played by October Moore. Feld has been off the Portland culinary scene for decades, and is only returning to find his stolen truffle pig. It’s unclear why he left the scene, but in his absence, the cooks he inspired became manipulative, self-serving, violent sell-outs, trading their own interests for trends, all except for Helen.
In the logic of the film, cooks are cutthroat and solipsistic, while bakers are patient and generous. This dichotomy reflects the gender roles in a traditional action movie (the men stoically kill the bad guys on behalf of women who then tend to their wounds), and while Pig starts like a typical action movie, it ends somewhat differently.
After talking with Helen, Feld changes his approach. When he confronts Darius, the restaurant owner who stole his pig, he doesn’t exact his revenge. Instead, he cooks the meal he once made for Darius and his now comatose wife years ago. We see him cooking slowly, patiently, finally serving a meal that brings Darius to tears. In the film’s logic, Feld acts as a baker, not a cook, using the dish (“a bird, a bottle, and a salted baguette”) as a medium for human connection.
Bread is often a symbol for human connection. Political analysts describe household economic policies like taxes and local infrastructure as bread-and-butter issues. One Bolshevik slogan during the Russian Revolution called for three things: Bread, Peace, and Land. The Labor slogan bread and roses comes from suffragist Helen Todd’s statement, “we want bread for all, but roses too,” a call for material sustenance as well as social freedoms. Bread distinguished pastoral nomadic societies from sedentary agriculturalists who settled along rivers to grow their grain. In Biblical tradition, God tells the Israelites to eat unleavened bread in their hurried exodus from Egypt, and in the Gospels, Jesus breaks unleavened bread during Passover the night before his crucifixion, resulting in the production of billions of unleavened communion wafers for the Catholic Eucharist.
In baking school, I became deeply depressed, in part because I had volunteered to overwork myself, but also because the program dissolved the sense of connectivity that I had associated with baking. I had to admit to myself that I was there not to learn new skills, but to monetize one of my hobbies, and in that monetization, I became alienated from it. Mark Fisher describes the process like this: “Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems” (34).
So, I make a loaf of soda bread and think of family. I don’t have buttermilk, so I add vinegar for the acid. I use oat milk, too, and a recipe I’m unfamiliar with. It comes out soft and crumbly and a little dense. I cut into it too fast, too eager to taste it. I place a chunk on my tongue and chew it slowly.
Civitello, Linda. Baking Powder Wars. University of Illinois Press, 2017.
GIsslen, Wayne. Professional Baking. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2017.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Zero Books, 2009.