Some snapshots of American life have nothing to do with a camera. Take a closer look at our country's baking traditions. You'll find, with each bread and roll, a portrait of a particular region.
After decades in which characterless, mass-produced breads -- with their universally soft textures and mild flavors -- reigned supreme at the store, artisan bread makers, cookbook authors, upscale markets and even some supermarkets are resurrecting some great American loaves.
Regional baking still thrives, according to Beth Hensperger, author of several baking books, including Breads of the Southwest.
"You can tell where somebody is from by what kind of baking they do," she said.
Hearty multigrain and cheese breads in the Midwest; yellow cornmeal and molasses "cakes" and buttery dinner rolls on the East Coast; Sally Lunn bread and the fluffy white biscuits of the South; chili-spiked corn breads from the Southwest; and the distinctive sourdough loaves of California -- all carry the stamp of their early influences.
"In the past, it depended on the type of people who settled in different places and the availability of different ingredients," Hensperger said. "In the South and Southwest, it's corn, corn, corn. In the heartland, the Swedish, Russian and German immigrants had these really incredible baking traditions. The Russian wheat that was finally grown in Kansas made beautiful breads.
"Definitely the West is known for sourdough, and in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are the border breads. It is very ethnic-dominated."
The Colonists were quick to adapt American ingredients to European traditions, according to Arthur Meyer, author of Baking Across America (University of Texas Press, 1998, $45).
"When you look at the way the United States was originally settled, it tells you about the bread based on the climate and the kind of people who settled here, from the English to the Germans to the Spanish down in Florida.
"As we had the Western push and people started to merge, you started to see more of a blending," said Meyer. "As you head past the Rocky Mountains, you see elements of New England baking," as in Mormon johnnycake.
Further migration continued to dilute regional identities, but many bread traditions still remain.
Wherever your roots may be, said Judith Fertig, author of Prairie Home Breads (Harvard Common Press, 2001, $18.95), bread making itself can be rewarding enough.
"You start with flour and water and end up with a great loaf of bread," Fertig said. "It's a real sense of accomplishment."
The sturdy grains that flourished in the Midwest were key to the textured yeast breads that came from pioneer ovens.
Wheat berries, rye, oats, honey, homemade yeast made from potatoes, the malty tang of beer and the richness of cheese can be found in many local bread traditions. Sourdough starter, a necessity when store-bought yeast was far from remotely located farms, also played a part in Midwest loaves.
"If you go back to pioneer roots, a lot of the breads are sourdough-based," Fertig said. "[Novelist] Willa Cather writes a lot about farm wives 'saving some of the dough back' for a starter dough in the midweek."
It's good to know that regional traditions can still flourish, Fertig said. "What distinguishes the Midwest is that all we need to make bread is right here. If you take wild Midwestern yeast and local spring water and Midwestern flour, you truly have a Midwestern bread. You end up with a taste of the place."
The East Coast
Corn was featured prominently up and down the East Coast, baked into cake-style rounds, prepared with everything from plain hot water and salt to the rich enhancements of eggs and butter. Seventeenth-century Colonists made ash cake or hoecake, baked right in the fire on hearthstones or the back of a hoe.
Cooks also blended cornmeal with wheat and rye to make the traditional steamed Boston brown bread, a recipe that continues to be strongly identified with the Northeast. Maple syrup, another famous product of the region, often appears as one of the bread's ingredients.
The climate of the South had a great influence on baking styles. First, the soft winter wheat grown there was a low-gluten grain more suited for delicate biscuits and pastries than for sturdy loaves.
But just as important were the many months of warm -- sometimes unbearably hot -- temperatures that made kitchens so uncomfortable. The quick-cooking biscuits and corn bread were much better suited to Southern bakers. Although indoor air-conditioning has made the kitchen cooler, the tradition remains.
"When our consumers say they are baking bread, a large majority of them mean biscuits and corn bread," said Belinda Ellis, consumer affairs manager for the White Lily Foods Co. in Knoxville, Tenn., makers of the South's prized White Lily flour.
"You don't want to have an oven on for too long, so those two things are the perfect breads for the South."
Agriculturally rich states had a variety of flours at hand to make a range of breads and pastries, but the mountain and Southwestern states' arid climate forced bread makers to become more creative with cornmeal and wheat.
Blue and red cornmeal sticks; corn bread with hot or sweet peppers; and fresh tortillas may be appearing in upscale restaurant bread baskets, but they all have solid roots in the old Southwest.
From the beginning, the influence of the Native American population and Spanish and Mexican settlers led to well-textured, seasoned breads, Hensperger said.
"They think nothing of adding goat cheese and walnuts, ground acorns, pine nuts and other nutmeats. They will add spices like chilies and cinnamon."
California, particularly San Francisco, became famous for sourdough when airborne wild yeasts there helped bakers create loaves of the tangy bread. Once the state became an agriculture powerhouse -- with its plentiful acres of vegetables, fruit and nut trees -- these ingredients were incorporated into local breads such as olive rolls, walnut loaves and artichoke breads.
Kristin Eddy is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
Boston Brown Bread
Makes 1 loaf, about 10 slices
1/2 cup each: rye flour, yellow cornmeal, graham or whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons molasses
1 cup buttermilk
butter for coffee can
Preparation time: 20 minutes; cooking time: about 1 1/2 hours
Mix the rye flour, cornmeal, graham flour, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add molasses and buttermilk; mix well. Set aside.
Butter a 1-pound coffee can. Pour in batter. Cover tightly with a double piece of aluminum foil over the top and halfway down the sides of the can; secure with kitchen string.
Place can in a deep saucepan or stockpot. Add enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the can. Cover saucepan; steam until a tester inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove can; cool 15 minutes on a rack. Unmold bread; serve warm.
Per slice: 100 calories; 6 percent calories from fat; 0.7 gram fat; 0.2 gram saturated fat; 1 milligram cholesterol; 335 milligrams sodium; 22 grams carbohydrate; 2.4 grams protein; 1.7 grams fiber- Judith Jones and Evan Jones, "The Book of New New England Cookery" (University Press of New England, 2001, $24.95)
White Sage Bread
Makes 2 round loaves, about 10 slices each
1 1/4 cups warm water (105 degrees to 115 degrees)
3 tablespoons sugar or honey
1 package ( 1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
5 cups to 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups small-curd cottage cheese
1 egg white
1 tablespoon water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted, crushed
Preparation time: 30 minutes; rising time: about 3 hours; baking time: 30 to 35 minutes
Put the warm water, sugar and yeast in a large bowl of electric mixer; stir to dissolve. Stir in 2 cups of the flour; beat until smooth, about 15 strokes. Cover loosely; let stand at room temperature until bubbly, about 1 hour.
Stir in 1 cup of the flour, oil, sage, salt, eggs and cottage cheese; beat on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, beating on low speed until dough is soft and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface; knead until soft and springy, 1-2 minutes. Place in a greased bowl; turn once to coat the top. Cover; let rise to room temperature until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours.
Grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper. Turn dough onto clean work surface; divide into 2 equal portions. Form each into a tight round. Place on baking sheet; dust with flour. Cover loosely. Let rise at room temperature until doubled, about 50 minutes.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut a large X on the top of each loaf, no more than 1/4 -inch deep.
For the glaze, whisk egg white, water and salt together until foamy. Brush loaves with glaze; sprinkle with pine nuts. Bake until loaves are golden-brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the baking sheet; cool on baking racks.
Per slice: 190 calories; 28 percent calories from fat; 6 grams fat; 1.2 grams saturated fat; 25 milligrams cholesterol; 320 milligrams sodium; 27 grams carbohydrate; 7 grams protein; 1 gram fiber- Beth Hensperger, "Breads of the Southwest"