Appalachia’s Friendship Bread

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Photo courtesy of Glenn G

A few years back, our family visited a church in our local community. The church was probably not unlike the average Appalachian mountain-church in the 21st century: A largely empty over-sized auditorium, dated decorations that reminded me of my grandmother’s church from years gone by and a handful of simple down to earth believers who are truly the “salt of the earth”.  We had a great time and ended up making a handful of return visits to the church in the weeks that followed.

One particular elderly lady took a liking to our family and soon she and my wife were spending countless minutes before and after the service inside the church’s foyer, talking about anything and everything — a true generation-spanning friendship was in the making.

One evening this particular woman arrived at church and told my wife she had a very special gift for our family and following the service we were to meet at her vehicle in the parking lot.

As we walked out to the grey-haired lady’s car neither of us would have guessed in a million years time what special gift awaited us.

Handing us a mysterious aluminum foil-wrapped object, our hearts were touched when she stated, “Even though I’ve only known your family for just a short time, I have come to count you as a dear friend — and to show you how much I appreciate your friendship, I’ve decided to give you a starter of my friendship bread.  I’ve always tried to never share friendship bread with anyone except a real friend and that’s how I see you.”

To our embarrassment, neither my wife nor myself had ever even heard of such a thing and our elderly friend graciously took the time to explain to us the process and concept of “friendship bread”.

Turns out, friendship bread is a type of bread made from yeast provided to you by the excess of another friend who elected to share a cup of the liquid yeast culture with people who would like to make this bread. The starter is typically maintained by adding sugar, flour and milk every few days, although any source of water and food for the yeast will work.

We later learned that this particular woman had even given her bread a name and joked that it ate as much as her only companion, a golden retriever.

A common recipe using this starter suggests using one cup of it to make bread, keeping one cup to start a new cycle, and giving the remaining three cups to friends. The process of sharing the starter makes it somewhat like a chain letter. One cup of starter makes one standard loaf of bread.

Friendship bread is often referred to as “Amish Friendship Bread”, however, individuals connected to various Amish orders have gone on record to refute the claim, stating that there is nothing inherently Amish about the practice, although it is still practiced commonly among many in the community.

Though the practice can be traced back centuries to the Old World in Europe, friendship bread really took off in the United States during the late-1980s.

Despite common instructions to the contrary, the starter can be frozen for later use, and the cycle begun anew after thawing. The cycle can also be slowed to about half the normal fermentation rate by refrigerating the starter instead of allowing it to ferment at room temperature. Refrigeration is usually recommended if a few days’ delay is desired.

We found the entire concept to be fascinating, albeit very involved!  In the end, we were touched by our new found friend’s generosity and continued to make bread for weeks to come.

Though not everyone in Appalachia may take part in the practice, friendship bread truly encompasses what it means to be Appalachian: great food, friendship, and a labor-intensive process for no other reason than it’s fulfilling.

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