Cultural Christianity, Boston Brown Bread, and Airport Security

I just returned from a summer trip to Massachusetts (where I was born and raised) and Rhode Island (where I went to college). It got me thinking about my roots as a New Englander, and as a sort of cultural Christian. Many Jews and non-Jews understand the idea of cultural Judaism: the concept that someone may not be a religious Jew, may be an atheist, and yet may feel defined by the foodways and language and customs of a particular Jewish civilization (most commonly, the Ashkenazi Jewish culture from Eastern Europe that predominates in the U.S.).

On the other hand, the idea that one could be a cultural (as opposed to religious) Christian is relatively new and more contentious. Much of what I see (through my Jewish lens) as Christian culture is perceived by Christians (and even non-Christians) to be not ethnic, but simply neutral, or the “American” norm. I understand. Growing up in New England, I was not strongly aware of the Puritan flavor of my culture: it was all I had ever experienced. I could not have described what is unique about New England culture until I went away, and lived in the (more Jewish) culture of New York City, and in a Muslim country, and a Catholic country, and then came back to see New England through the eyes of a visitor.

Now, when I return to my childhood home, I see that my parents chose a classic Protestant New England village in which to raise their children, with a town hall graced by a white steeple, overlooking a town green designed for grazing community sheep. As (half) Jews in this context, we were exotic. I grew up subconsciously conforming: wearing Fair Isle sweaters, corduroys, kilts. An interfaith pioneer, my mother agreed to raise us as Jews. But she took advantage of the (less stringent) Reform Judaism of the 1960s, to steep us in (very unkosher) New England cuisine. A wonderful cook to this day, she fed us on clam chowder with bacon, baked scrod, steamed clams, lobster rolls, cornbread baked in a cast-iron mold into the shape of little ears of corn, and B&M Brown Bread with baked beans.

B&M Brown Bread, a New England tradition,  comes in the form of a cylinder, in a can. “Why would anyone eat that?” recoils my husband, a New Jersey native. Because it’s delicious! The dark, sweet, moist bread contains all natural ingredients straight from the Pilgrim and American Indian larder: rye flour, corn meal, molasses, buttermilk, raisins. You steam the bread in a can, because the Indians and Pilgrims cooked this way, over a fire. My friend Marika from Vermont remembers her mother (a pioneering Episcopal priest) making it from scratch: you can steam the bread in a special cylindrical mold, or with Protestant Yankee thrift,  in an old coffee can.

My mother served brown bread as part of the traditional New England Saturday supper with baked beans (made with salt pork, mustard and molasses) and hot dogs. Or as a snack spread with cream cheese. You can order the canned bread, along with a lot of other nostalgic New England fare, from the Vermont Country Store.

Marika and I were reminiscing with my mother recently about our shared nostalgia for brown bread. So when I arrived at my childhood home outside Boston this week, my mother presented me with two one-pound cans of B&M Brown Bread: one for me and one for Marika. They filled about half of my rolling carry-on bag, but their mere existence on the earth, in an era of globalization and homogenization, delighted me. I cannot wait for my children to come home from camp, so that I can initiate them into this aspect of their New England heritage. The cans of bread fit right in with my agenda of uncovering and celebrating the deep and specific connections to every culture and religion in their complex backgrounds.

At the Providence airport, the two huge cans stopped the conveyor belt instantly, as the security officer struggled to devine the meaning of the X-ray picture on his screen. “It’s B&M Brown Bread!” I exclaimed, panicked that I would lose my treasure. My heart sank as a second security officer in rubber gloves removed my bag from the luggage stream and called me over to an inspection table. He lifted a can and turned to me with a grave expression. “I’m sorry miss, but it’s near break time, so I’m going to have to confiscate one of the two cans you have here.”  

Flustered, I did not digest his meaning, nor notice at first the twinkle in his eye.  “But there’s no liquid in the can!” I protested in anguish. “What is the rule against brown bread?”

He slowly repeated himself, and I finally saw the glimmer of a smile behind his stern voice, “It’s near break time, so we’re going to take one of these cans of bread here.”

With a huge relieved grin, I finally caught on to the joke. I knew that travelers were not supposed to josh with airport security (for instance, about the possibility of using canned brown bread as a weapon). It had not occurred to me that the security officers would allow themselves to play a  joke on me. As I zipped the two precious cans back safely into my bag, I was suffused with the warmth of embarassment, but also the warmth of sharing this quirky love for canned bread with the security officer–my fellow New Englander. And I was thankful to my mother for raising us with love for the particularities of this culture, and for my children for existing, so that I can pass this love on.

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