Period The many joys of stale bread

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Apr 18, 2019
Eating stuffing for the fifth day in a row makes me think about all the ways our ancestors used their stale bread. There are hundreds of recipes - many of which we still use today - that were inspired by the need to make stale bread into something tasty. Many of us don't even think of these recipes as being ways to save bread from the trash (or the hogs as farmers would have done). We buy fresh bread or make it, as I did my cornbread for our Thanksgiving stuffing, and when it's no longer good we just toss it. But in the days before store bought bread was the norm, every household had stale bread and a desire not to waste it.

When we think of avoiding waste we think of our parents and grandparents telling us about the frugalities of the Depression. For our ancestors, that need to scrimp and save money wasn't the only motive for using every last scrap. A homemaker often spent an entire day baking bread and other baked goods for her household. Throwing away part of that bread wasn't just a loss of money - it was a waste of precious time and energy.

Using stale bread presents a real challenge to the cook. It is, obviously, stale. And as such it needs to be altered to make it palatable. Most of the time that means adding liquid. Stuffing uses broth (another frugal kitchen basic that turns bones into flavor). That broth and the additional vegetables and spices make the bread into a new and delicious dish.

Another popular addition to stale bread is milk or milk mixed with eggs. A quick dip in this mix gives us French toast. A longer soak and it's bread pudding. In a place where dairy is scarce - why not try tomatoes? The salads Panzanella from Italy and Fatoush from Lebanon toss old bread with sliced tomatoes and herbs.

Stale bread isn't always moistened. Run over a grater stale bread becomes breadcrumbs and then can transform slices of meat into schnitzel and a dish of vegetables into an au gratin (gratin from grated - a nod to the bread on top). We buy breadcrumbs pre-made and throw our leftover bread away - a waste our fore-mothers would not understand.

Often modern day recipes add steps to recreate the texture of stale bread for today's cooks. I put slices of lovely fresh bread in the oven this week before topping them with cheese and sliding them into bowls of onion soup. A housewife of years ago would have grabbed slices of stale bread for that job.

I'm sure I missed any number of delicious dishes that originated with stale bread. If you have some to add - please do! And enjoy that leftover stuffing.
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Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!