“Eat more fiber.”

“Whole grains are better for you.”`

Over the past few decades, eating brown bread has become associated with being more health conscious, and it’s actually still trending. According to a recent USDA survey, Americans doubled their intake of whole grains over a ten-year period between 2004-2014.

But, like many food trends, eating brown bread is nothing new. Worldwide, people have been doing it for millennia. However, the American take on it is unique and originated relatively recently, going back a few centuries. Here’s the scoop on why that is.

New World, New Bread Recipe

It all starts with thirded bread, which was a staple of European households. As the name implies, people would often make bread with equal amounts of flour from three different grains; in England, it was usually wheat, rye, and oats. Until the 20th century, wheat flour was considered expensive in most households, so thirded bread was a great way to make it stretch.

According to Kathleen Wall, Living History Educator and Colonial Foodways Specialist at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., once they arrived in the 1600s, it didn’t take long for the Pilgrims to figure out that wheat didn’t grow as well in the New World as it did back home. To ensure they’d have food enough to survive, they learned to plant wheat and rye together. They’d never have planted two cereal grains together back in England, but it was a failsafe method, Wall explains, since New England weather is fickle, and conditions that were a curse to one crop were usually a boon to the other.

Maize (aka corn) was new to the colonists’ diet, but plentiful in New England. As a result, the Pilgrims learned to plant it and make their thirded bread with a combination of wheat, rye, and maize (instead of oat) flour. Molasses, which, along with rum, played a major role in the colonial economy, is also a crucial ingredient in thirded bread. It’s also likely to have contained ground peas or beans, especially in the 17th and 18th century. However, since legumes were considered “poor man’s food,” they did not appear as an ingredient in any bread recipes at the time.

Ready to Eat from the Can

B & M

While thirded bread was originally baked in the hearth by the heat of hot embers, the colonists also enjoyed boiling it in a pot of water to make a steamed pudding. This evolved into what is now known as Boston brown bread. Like Boston baked beans, with which the bread is often served, it’s associated with traditional New England cuisine.

For 151 years, B & M has been operating out of Portland, Maine and making brick-oven baked beans. Around the 1920s-1930s, the company also started making brown bread that — you guessed it — comes in a can. Now available either plain or with raisins, the bread is actually steam-cooked in the can, so it’s ready to eat when you open it. It even has a two-year shelf life.

According to Associate Brand Manager Karen Hopper, the ingredients for B & M’s brown bread are very similar to those used centuries ago to make thirded bread, including whole wheat flour, cornmeal, and molasses. “Most people are stunned that it exists,” says Hopper. Regardless, there’s a market for nostalgic foods, and sales tend to spike during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day.

Wall, who has experimented with making different brown bread recipes and recommends King Arthur Flour’s version, is also a fan of the canned stuff. It’s “uber New England comfort food,” she writes. But if you choose to make brown bread for scratch, she says, a word of advice: you can make it in a can, or even in a glass canning jar, but make sure it’s of the wide-mouth variety. You can also make it in a slow-cooker, which is a real game-changer.

Whichever way you have it — homemade or bought canned online — brown bread is a hearty treat that goes well with soups, stews and a bit of New England folklore.

Header image courtesy of King Arthur Flour.

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