Recipes: Prison and Slave Breads for William Rubel Thursday Bread History Seminar #19.

These recipes were first published for people attending my Thursday Bread History Seminar on prison and slave breads on February 4, 2020.

There is no cookbook where you can look up how to make breads for prisoners, or for the enslaved. Prison and slave breads are really and truly written in the hearts of jailers and enslavers. There is a custom around which the bread recipes for prisoners were formulated. This custom, still current in many prisons today, is expressed in a text that is at least two-thousand years old. The custom is summarized by the King James translation of the original Hebrew text. You serve prisoners the “bread of affliction.”

Prison is an upside down world.

Instead of serving a bread to nurture, and uplift, as we do in our own home, prisoners are historically served a bread formulated to tear them down. To afflict them. The classic prison bread is formulated to mentally harm, and historically, there was also a custom of not feeding prisoners enough of it. Keeping prisoners hungry makes them physically compliant. While the extent to which the prison bread is an affliction, and the amount served, depends on local custom, and the personality of the jailor.

In creating a bread at our Seminar/Workshop on Thursday, I want you to make a bread that is the conceptual opposite of your ideal wonderful bread. Think of a bread you would make for an important person in your life who is coming to dinner for the first time — someone you have crush on, your boss, the religious or a spiritual person most important in your life — or the bread you would bake for a child coming back from college for the first time. Formulate a bread that has the opposite qualities of whatever that bread would be.

This begins to move us towards a prison bread.

By longstanding custom, it has been permissible in some situations to kill prisoners through tainted food, starvation, and exposure. Compared with slave breads that must be edible enough, and in enough quantity, to enable the slave to work, the prison context offers latitude for the sadistic jailer to formulate a very hurtful bread. In this exercise you can choose what kind of a jail are you going to be, but I will say that I think we will each get the most out of this by asking the question, what exactly makes a bread of affliction?

The Bible, though two thousand years old, remains a relevant text today in understanding prison bread. In the words of King James’ early 17th century translators, King Ahab directs his jailer to feed the prisoner, “the bread of affliction.” That is the word they chose, even though the underlying Hebrew word does not literally mean “affliction.” The translators choose affliction as a metonymy for לַחַץ, lachats. Lachats literally means oppression, distress, and sometimes pressure, which is its current Hebrew meaning.

Another metonymy for lachats is scarcity. Scarcity is the term that many recent bible translations use instead of the affliction. Many 17th century Bibles, through a marginalia note placed besides the Kings passage in which the “bread of affliction” is cited (1 Kings 22:27) clarify that that the king was also ordering his prisoner to be kept hungry and thirsty. Bad food, and not enough of it, is still a part of modern penal systems, if the hunger part is less common that it might have once been.

Teasing out what makes a “bread of affliction” will help us clarify what makes a “best” bread.

What bread to make for Thursday?

We will make breads in the last twenty minutes of the class. If you have worked out what you have in mind, then please have the ingredients measured out in the time honored system known by the French expression mise en place. Depending on your time zone, you may want to keep on going with the recipe, or refrigerate the dough you have mixed to bake off in the morning.

If working within fictional words might help you be cruel in the recipe tent, then give some thought to what Lord Sauron, of Middle Earth, might have instructed his jailer to inflict upon a prisoner he detested, but did not want immediately killed. I am providing, below, a few specific examples of breads for prisoners or slaves drawn from the historic record to assist you in formulating a bread that might be best fed to your chickens, or those of a neighbor.

Hoe Cake & Ash Cake :: Enslaved Africans in America

The important concept here that will be more fully explored during the seminar, is that corn is widely used as an animal feed. Thus, any cornbread or corn product fed to prisoners will read to them that they are being fed like animals. I was in Kenya once in Samburu district where I have a research project. There was a drought. Food was being delivered by the UN in armed transports. They were being given corn from United States and oil from Germany. The corn was yellow. This is the kind of corn that they associate with animal feed. At one of the distribution stations someone said to me that he thanked me for the food, but said you were feeding us like animals. That was an inadvertent insult by the American government. But feeding a corn bread to a slave or a prisoner is a purposeful insult.

Hoe cakes were staple foods of the enslaved Africans in the United States. They are made from cornmeal, salt, and water. Mix together into a thick batter. Let sit for 15 to 20 minutes to hydrate, and then bake on a lightly oiled griddle, a substitute for an agricultural hoe. There is no leavening. In the words of an 1878 published recipe, “Saleratus and soda, proculo procul ! Let there be nothing but water and salt.” Make no more than one finger thick. Ash cake, which can be a little thicker, employs the same recipe, but it’s wrapped in large leaves, like cabbage leaves, which are then buried into the embers of the fire. You can also bake in your oven at 175°C or 350°F. These were also common,

Biscuit of “black shorts.” :: Enslaved Africans in America

If enslaved Africans on American plantations were given flour other than cornmeal, it was usually wheat middlings. Where rye was grown, they were given rye middlings, referenced in the above WPA slave narrative as “black shorts.” These would have been the product left over after refining rye meal into a medium or light rye flour. Judging by the description in the slave narrative as “nigger Heels,” these sound like a fairly crude lump of dough. I have no idea how they were made, so I hope that at least one of you are able to try something. A coarse rye meal would make a possible substitute for black shorts.

Totally Unleavened Loaf Bread, probably middlings. American prison circa 1830.

Ordinary fermented bread of rye-flour or middlings of wheat, would be little more expensive than the bread at present in use; and even the fermentation of the bread now furnished, would improve its quality, with trifling labor and expense. 

The Physician of the Connecticut State Prison, Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline, 1831 

There is an extraordinary account of prison conditions in an American prison circa 1830. The report by the prison system physician that many prisoners are sick with severe gastrointestinal distress owing, in part, to horrible food served cold. While the quantity is apparently sufficient, there is no doubt that the prisoners are being fed the bread of affliction in both the narrow meaning of bread, and its larger meaning of food. The bread is literally an unleavened loaf. I have not run across this before — but prison breads fall into the undocumented shadow world, so we should not assume this is the only instance of this in the history of the world. The physician describing the prison conditions suggests, at the least, that the bread be fermented, but also suggests making ordinary rye bread or bread of wheat middlings would be improvements. It is unclear what the current unfermented loaf is made of. Perhaps wheat middlings and bran, as bran would keep the crumb friable.

Dry Barley Bread :: England/UK (Recorded use in prisons from at least 900 CE.)

Dry barley bread was specified in 18th century British Law for certain penal punishments, including as part of a system of torture/execution. A one ounce piece of dry barley bread was required for the pre-Norman trial by bread called the corsned. As one of the concepts surrounding a bread of affliction includes being served a bread that was understood to be “down market” as we would put today, barley, which was much cheaper than wheat, could easily have been common bread in British prisons. I don’t have a specific recipe to offer, but include this quote below from a British text from the 1850s to inspire your thinking.

Bread, Varieties of in the North of England. Eden (vol. i. p. 510 et seq.) says there are many different sorts of bread used in the north of England. In Cumberland it is generally made of barley-meal made into dough, with salt, &c. in the usual way. It is sometimes baked in unleavened cakes about half an inch thick and twelve inches in diameter; but it is more commonly leavened and made into loaves of about 12 lb. each ; which will keep good four or five weeks in winter, and two or three in summer. In May 1796, this barley bread, leavened, sold in Carlisle for 1s. the 11 lb. barley being then 5s. the bushel. This bread though of darkish hue and somewhat sour, is considered extremely nutritious. 

The Unpleasantly Sour Loaf :: Ubiquitous complaint about prison breads

It is not unusual to find prison breads described as being virtually inedible because of how sour they are. Keeping in mind that until recently, any sour flavor in bread was looked on as a fault in both English and American baking, serving pungently sour bread would have offered an extra affront to the prisoners. The underlying bread was probably made with middlings. Creating an unpleasantly sour loaf might be a good goal for sourdough bakers. Take what you know about making a fabulous sourdough loaf, and do the opposite.

For more inspiration, I am including here the recipe for “Brown Bread” by Gervase Markham, circa 1615. This is a bread designed for the landless peasants who were hired on farms for the harvests. Markham calls it the “coarsest bread for man’s use.” It is sour. Dense. Strongly flavored. Not a bread for a celebration. I made it once, and I can tell you that it is definitely a loaf one would prefer not to be served. Note the carelessness with which it is made. It is easy to see that if you don’t pour boiling water on the pea flour, the bread will have an extra nasty taste. If the sour trough system doesn’t provide enough leavening, then rather than add yeast, as Markham suggests, just bake off the bread.

As the Markham recipe may be too involved for Thursday, you can get a sense of what happens if you add pea flour to a bread. Grind dried peas into flour using your coffee grinder or a high speed blender. Any pea flour that you add to a bread dough is going to bake up into a bread that is denser than normal, and as will see, it will also contribute a flavor that might not be enticing.

Undercooked Bread :: Served to French prisoners from the Napoleonic War

Half the time the bread is not baked, and is only good to bang against a wall… We have several times refused to eat it [the food], and as a result got nothing in its place, and at the same time are told that anything is good enough for a Frenchman. Therein lies the motive of their barbarity.

Prisoners of War in Britain 1756-1815, Francis Abell

This is the quintessential bread defined by the animus of the jailer towards the prisoner. This undercooked bread is not the only a problem we know of regarding breads fed to the French prisoners, of whom the British had vast numbers housed in hulks and land-based prisons. At their worst, conditions seem to have been similar to those in German concentration camps. In this case, the description of what was wrong with the bread is so clear that we can at least recreate the concept for ourselves. We know from other evidence that the primary flour used for these breads was middlings. As no care is going to go into the baking of it, I would suggest a sour leavening. Normally, the British made bread with yeast, but in this instance, I doubt it. Obviously, as the bread is not going to be fully baked, you don’t need to be too concerned with how much it rises before you put it into the oven.

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