Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Witch Bread

In her 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke cites a proverb of her alternate-history 19th-century, Napoleonic Era England:

The priest plants wheat, the witch plants rye.

Clarke reads this as meaning that "Some people just can't agree on anything." But I think there's more to it than that.

At the sabbat, when we tear the god and eat his very flesh (but this is a mystery), the bread we use is a toothsome, crusty loaf baked from the very finest unbleached Red River hard-wheat flour.

But that's the sabbat. Everyday eating is another matter.

A few years back, John ("Peak Oil") Michael Greer delivered the keynote address at Paganicon I. His otherwise thoughtful speech struck a single false note: his wondering incomprehension at anyone so effete as to use a bread machine instead of making her own bread by hand.

Well, John is a professional writer who works at home. Those of us not so situated understand the utility of time- and labor-saving devices like bread machines. Mine keeps me fed with good, real food nearly every day of my life.

I love my bread machine. Down the years I've burned through 2 or 3 of them, since a coven sib first passed on to me one she'd found at a garage sale, and I learned firsthand the joys of a fresh, unadulterated loaf without the time and labor of hand baking. Dump in the ingredients, press the button, and go away. Come back 4 hours later, and voilà. (Fortunately, I've got a neighbor who deals in scrap. Still, those 2 or 3 burned-out machines are a sorry waste. Whyever can't they make them to last?)

A while back I tired of the bread I was making, though. (A friend of a friend once picked up rockstar/monk Thomas Merton at the airport. They needed to grab some dinner before his talk that night. "Let's go to McD****s," said Merton. Tucking into his third B** M**, Merton confessed: "I get so tired of that god-damned homemade monastery bread.") At the time I was baking with half whole wheat flour, half bread flour. Sorry, it was just too light, too airy. I wanted 100% whole wheat, bread with heft.

It took some experimentation, but I'm finally there. It isn't light, it isn't airy. I couldn't be happier.

Dark and sweet with molasses, earthy with whole grain, nutty with mashed potato. Delicious.

Let the constipated priest sit straining in the rectory with his whiter-than-thou upper crust loaf.

Me, give me my heavy brown peasant bread instead, every slice as dense, moist and rich as plum cake.

Witch bread.

For what it's worth, here's my list of ingredients, but it probably won't work in your bread machine. Bread machines are like pagans: every single one has her own damn opinion.

1 1/4 cups potato water

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon oil (I use olive)

1 tablespoon molasses (or half honey, half molasses)

1 small potato, cooked and mashed

3 cups whole wheat flour

scant 1/2 teaspoon yeast 




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Christopher Blackwell
    Christopher Blackwell Tuesday, 18 November 2014

    There was another factor involved, cost. For those that lived in town, wheat bread was more expensive than rye bread, and white bread was even more expensive than whole wheat. So for most people rye bread was all there was if they could afford bread.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 18 November 2014

    Yeah, white bread's for gentry, not for the likes of us wart-charmers. Wheat is finicky and has a long growing season; rye is basically a weed.

    Pass the black bread, please. Did anyone remember the black turnip slices?

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