When New England food comes up in conversation, there are a number of classic dishes that are usually name-checked: apple cider, cranberries, and marshmallow fluff. Perhaps someone will bring up clam chowder or baked beans, johnnycakes or lobster. But I’d argue that there is one very weird regional food that embodies the tough New England spirit more than anything else, and that’s brown bread in a can.
Yes, bread in a can. Traditionally steamed in coffee cans, this dense, moist bread may have fallen out of fashion in the last few decades, but persists in grocery stores today. The bread dates back to the early settlers of New England, and was supposedly steamed over campfires. (It still makes for an easy campside food.) Made with a mixture of different flours, it is usually sweetened with molasses, and sometimes has raisins. Brown bread has a heartiness made for cold New England mornings. This isn’t a light food to start your day. This is the kind of bread you eat when your dad gets you up at 5 a.m. to go sit in an ice fishing shack.
The bread has a moist yet crumbly, almost cake-like, texture. It isn’t especially sweet, but the molasses flavor comes through strong; there’s almost a smokiness to it. You’d think that considering molasses was the cause of one of the deadliest disasters in Boston history, we would have developed a distaste for it, but it continues to be a fixture of the New England palette.
The flavor of brown bread is unique, and, like many regional oddities, it isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to bread you would buy in the grocery store, and the texture and flavor aren’t like that either. It's more like a pudding than a loaf of brioche. Beyond flavor, many people are just not comfortable with the idea of bread that comes in a can.
Brown bread from a can is at its best when toasted and used as a base for another ingredient. Baked beans, especially a version that leans to the sweeter side, blends well with the molasses flavors. The bread soaks in the sauce and its denseness helps hold it together. Toasted and served with cream cheese is another common way to serve brown bread. The creamy tang helps to balance out the strong and rich flavor of the bread, especially with a hot cup of coffee.
When I was growing up, my mother would buy cans of brown bread and slather the warm slices with butter. When I recently pointed out to her that the can mentioned cream cheese, she wrinkled her nose and insisted that must be “a new thing.” She, too, grew up eating canned bread, and even now she gets a big smile on her face when you bring up the subject. (Just mentioning that I was writing this article prompted her to go out and buy a can of it.) Though it wasn’t an everyday food for us, the rarity of the bread in a can made it feel like a treat. My brother and I would warm it up and eat thick slices of it. So what if it’s not a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery? Brown bread in a can may not be the most popular or prettiest food in New England, but it’s the one that feels the most like home.