The Fisherman’s Wife

Anadama Bread

Anadama Bread

My version of the legend goes something like this: a Gloucester fisherman comes home hungry after a long day of working on his boat. Bone tired, dead hungry, his mouth watering in anticipation of a good meal, he heads straight to the kitchen to see what his wife has waiting for dinner. Instead of his wife, he finds a note: “Out with the girls. Dinner in the ‘fridge – Anna.” Opening the refrigerator, he finds Anna’s culinary masterpiece, a bowl of cooked cornmeal and molasses. “Again!” he fumes, his anger boiling before he explodes with the plaintive wail, “Anna! Damn her!”

The happier version has it that the fisherman came home to the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread and a smiling, doting Anna. After sampling her newly created cornmeal-molasses bread, the fisherman shakes his head, and coos gratefully, “Anna. Damn her, she did it again.”

On reflection, the lazy wife in my first version sounds like one of those trashy attention hogs from a reality TV show they might have named, “I Married a Fisherman.” Apologies. My Baby Niece may have corralled me into watching one too many episodes of “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

Anna and her malnourished hubby are actually the featured players in a food legend that is as old as it is apocryphal. The fisherman’s expletive, “Anna, damn her!” became “Anadama” as the cornmeal-molasses bread is now more commonly known. This bread has been a standby in New England for many years. When Pepperidge Farm was still a little regional bakery, their version was a staple in supermarkets all around the Northeast.

Suddenly its day had passed, the bread seemingly relegated to the category of Thanksgiving specialty.

Growing up, the bread basket at Thanksgiving dinner was something I anticipated long before the call to the table. In those days, its contents could have passed for dessert: sticky buns, corn muffins, and the obligatory sweet-something-studded-with-cranberries. For this kid those goodies were like Pooh’s honey pot.

Also huddled in the bread basket—and likely overlooked (pushed side would be more accurate) by my grubby little fingers—was Anadama bread. As a kid Anadama bread didn’t hold the same appeal as its icky-sticky basket mates, but as an adult, it has my apologies for years of snubs. It’s good stuff.

Our Thanksgiving tables are reflections of our ethnic and regional backgrounds, so if you grew up outside of New England you were unlikely to have had Anadama bread. But now that you’ve been indoctrinated in the lore, let’s eat, shall we?

Anadama bread is a case of promises fulfilled. It tastes exactly as it looks. The dark, chewy crust quickly gives way, making you pause only long enough to get a gratifying whiff of toast, while the caramel-tinted center is only delicately sweetened: first, with the earthiness of the cornmeal, then with the snap of the molasses that follows a few steps behind. It is full of Yankee self confidence and doesn’t need to show off like those flashy sticky buns. How did I miss this as a kid?

Maybe it was because some of the Anadama bread of my youth was supercharged with generous portions of whole wheat flour and a dash or three of uncooked cornmeal. These unnecessary additions made the loaf heavy on colonial ambiance, but light on appeal. If I want a lesson about early Americans I’ll visit Plymouth Plantation. In the meantime, keep your gritty mitts off my Anadama; mine is made with white bread flour to mellow the cooked cornmeal.

Baking Anadama bread is slightly different from baking other breads because you must first boil the cornmeal. Boiling the cornmeal softens it so that its natural grittiness melts away as it is kneaded with the other flours. Some older recipes require cooking the cornmeal for five hours, then letting it soak further overnight. That is unnecessary. A quick boil followed by a gentle cool down achieves the same end. You then add the molasses and yeast to the cooked cornmeal creating a sort of abbreviated version of a “biga”, the sponge used as a starter in denser Italian breads.

If you’ve never made bread before, don’t let all this techni-trivia throw you; you’ll find baking this bread is a fairly easy process. Just be prepared: this is a project that takes about five hours from start to taking the first bite. But the good news is that the labor is all front-loaded. The five hours includes two rises and the baking. Your participation in those steps is minimal at most; you are really only needed for the first 45 minutes or so.

If you’re new to bread baking and you’re also the Field Marshall of an entire Thanksgiving feast, you may want to do a dress rehearsal, or at the very least bake this bread a day or two in advance (store the tightly-wrapped loaves in the freezer, and gently reheat in the oven before dinner.) If you’re availing yourself of others’ hospitality, this is a perfect “bring-along.” Let someone else bring pie.

As with most Thanksgiving dinners, there are likely to be a lot of leftovers, although I doubt your Anadama bread will be among them. But if you’re lucky enough to have a few slices in reserve the next day, you’ll say, “Merci” for Anadama French toast.  

While we’re on the subject of leftovers: how about the “Plymouth Rock”? Turkey and stuffing, dab of cranberry sauce on Anadama. Thankful, indeed!

(By the way, I made up the name “Plymouth Rock.”  Feel free to name the sandwich anything you like.)

I’ll be munching on Anadama bread next week, but I’m not too proud to admit that I still hope there’ll be a sticky bun with my name on it…

Click here for my Anadama Bread recipe.

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