A Great Tradition and Great Aunt
There are two kinds of traditions: 1) The cultural one that can be traced back through an ethnic group’s history and 2) family traditions that can be traced back to an individual family member.
Irish Soda Bread is an example of the first. Great Aunt Margaret’s Irish Soda bread is the other. The cultural one came first and was adapted and modified by the second into a family tradition. Both traditions are sacred. So sacred that only a few family members know how to bake the bread in our family.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has made Irish soda bread every year in the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day. When I went off to college, she would FedEx the bread overnight to us. She would stand in the kitchen, digging her hands into the dough, baking loaf upon loaf for friends and family.
Even today, no matter how many loaves she bakes, she always takes time to follow precisely the recipe she received from my Great Aunt Margaret Sweeney. Once she wrestles the sticky dough into a pan, my father uses a knife to cut a cross into the top and then pauses, as my Aunt Margaret did before him, to say a short prayer, blessing the bread, those who eat it, and for special intentions that day.
While the ingredient of prayer is my father’s special touch, cutting a cross into the top of a loaf of Irish soda bread before placing it in the oven isn’t unique to our family. The tradition actually serves a two-fold purpose:
1. It allows the heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the bread, so it assists cooking.
2. Obviously the cross is a cruciform shape, so in a Catholic country that had a resonance — it had the symbolic note of crossing the breads and giving thanks. There was also the expression “to let the devil out of the bread,” so it was slightly superstitious. And if you make that cruciform shape on the bread, when it comes out of the oven it breaks beautifully. So you’ve got the blessing of the bread by putting the cross on it and then you’ve got the symbolic breaking of the bread.
In my opinion, Great Aunt Margaret’s Irish soda bread is the best I’ve ever tasted. My family enjoys it toasted and topped with butter, but it’s just as good plain. For those who might want to try their hand at it, click here for a recipe…but it’s not Great Aunt Margaret’s, you have to marry into the Ward family for that recipe…which my husband did.
And the Tradition will continue through our children.