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Frugal Family Tradition

My grandmother Bridget Finnegan Lyons (1894-1989) lived for almost a century. She was born at a time when people traveled in horse-drawn carriages, and she died when the space shuttle routinely traveled to and from the moon. Formidably intelligent, she did not get much more than an elementary school education. She was deeply religious and somewhat rigid and Victorian in her manners until the day she died. My mother, her daughter-in-law, never had a relationship with her. They simply had nothing in common.

As a child, and even to this day, I always enjoy the company of older people, and my grandmother, despite her stern demeanor, was a favorite. She grudgingly gave up family secrets, but generously shared a family recipe for a comfort food for lean times — soda bread. It remains an inexpensive and welcome reminder of home and hearth — literally for some.

My grandmother would occasionally open up and tell tales from her childhood and just as quickly clam up when I became just a little too inquisitive. There were many skeletons in her family closet, and it would be many years later that certain things came to light. I never did quite understand the need for the secrecy. One of the great secrets involved madness and a brother locked away for 75 years. I only met him when he died at 95, and I saw him in a coffin. To a young adult, it was remarkable to see a dead body for the first time, but I digress.

In 1975, Ireland had a series of labor strikes that occasionally would cripple the country’s power supply. That winter my grandmother was ill, and I took care of her for a week or so. It coincided with a power outage, so we had to cook meals on an open peat and wood fire. She instructed me in great detail on how to use a cast iron skillet to cook potatoes, cabbage and salted bacon, the core Irish diet. In addition she showed me how to make soda bread, another staple of the diet, explaining how she had seen it baked in a really crude fashion in front of a blazing turf fire as a child in homes too poor to even afford a cast iron skillet.

For the traditional soda bread it is important to get a good whole wheat flour and local grown stone ground meal is absolutely the best. I like Stone Buhr.

A variation on this recipe is the addition of 2 cups of raisins, a beaten egg and a ¼ cup of sugar and substituting the whole wheat flour with white flour. The result a sweet- tasting white soda bread with plump raisins.

Brown soda bread

4 cups stone ground whole wheat flour
2 cups of unbleached plain flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2½ to 3 cups of buttermilk
1. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
2. Mix flours, salt and bread soda thoroughly in a bowl.
3. Make a well in the center.
4. Add almost all of the buttermilk.
5. Mix quickly and turn out the slightly soft dough onto a well-floured surface.
6. Working quickly, knead lightly and form into a round approximately 1½ inches thick. Do not over-knead the dough.
7. Place on lightly greased heavy baking pan or cast iron skillet.
8. Make a deep cross with a sharp knife.
9. Brush with a little buttermilk.
10. Bake in a cast iron or heavy-based pan.
11. Bake for 15 minutes at 450 F.
12. Turn down heat to 350 F and continue baking for 25 to 30 minutes.
It is baked when it sounds hollow when tapped underneath.
13. To keep crust soft, wrap in a clean tea towel and place on its side to allow excess moisture and heat to escape.
Note: It does not keep long and is best toasted after Day 3. It freezes well. It is perfection when served with a strong Irish or English cheddar cheese.


John Lyonsis the founder of Earthmatters, a gardening school in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, and The Woven Garden, a firm specializing in edible landscaping. He has written on gardening for the Los Angeles Times and California Gardener.

Photo of Irish soda bread by John Lyons