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Aunty Betty’s “Brown Bread”

When Aunty Betty came to visit, it was an occasion. To my brother, sister, and myself, she was the proverbial “fun aunt,” often arriving with gifts, always full of uproarious talk and laughter. A short woman with a pile of gray hair and a ball of energy.

Aunty Betty’s “brown bread” was a prize commodity in our house. Here was bread you could taste!

She carried with her a touch of elegance, she wore colourful skirts and dresses, drove spacious cars, always tidy and well kept. Her energy was contagious.

We kids would be full of anticipation when she was on her way to our house. She lived 15 minutes down the highway from us in West Vancouver. We’d keep an eye out for her car to turn into the driveway.

A pile of grey hair and a ball of energy

The moment the front door was opened, she’d be off on a story about a party she’d been to, or some delicious piece of gossip. We’d all follow her into the living room, her arms gesticulating, barely able to contain her excitement.

And there was always a punch line. She’d finish her story loudly, sit back, smack the arms of her chair and erupt into laughter.

Aunty Betty’s stories were usually about people we as kids didn’t know. They were more relevant to my mother and father (who was Betty’s younger brother). It didn’t matter, because she’d sweep us into the story, too, as if we were equal conspirators. We laughed because she laughed.

And when she turned her attention to us kids, our bits of news were just as fascinating to her. There would be some intriguing observation, or wisdom, or more than likely some laughter.

The loaf was a gift to my father, not us kids!

Sometimes, Aunty Betty brought a loaf of her “brown bread” — a second bonus after her very presence. This was a prize offering. Home-made bread was a treat in itself, but this loaf was all the more special because it was like a distant call from the old world, Scotland. Aunty Betty was the keeper of our Scottish grandmother’s old-world recipes. The bread was a gift to my father, who loved her cooking and baking … more than even my mother’s.

I’d follow the loaf into the kitchen, where my mother placed it in the bread box, beside the plastic-wrapped McGavin’s White Bread. I’d beg for a piece of the beautiful smelling loaf. My mother said I would have to wait for dinner.

Or some such excuse.

Aunty Betty’s brown bread was usually a dense, panned rye loaf with caraway or anise seeds. For years, I thought the flavour of those seeds was the flavour of rye flour.

The crumb wasn’t airy or springy, but it was moist and chewy in the mouth, a world away from the McGavin’s White we were accustomed to. Here was bread you could taste!

We’d fix it with a smear of Parkay (by Kraft!) or Squirrel Peanut Butter and feel the rapture of real bread.

But the rapture was short-lived! The bread was meant Dad, and he was unlikely to allow more than a piece or two to each kid. It was his loaf, and it never lasted for long.

For Dad, Aunty Betty’s brown bread was the taste of nostalgia. It took him back to his youth, to the old home in Burnaby where he grew up. His parents were Scots from Perth, who emigrated to the Lower Mainland not long after World War One.

The bread spoke of Scotland, the old world

The recipes must have made the journey with my Grandma to sustain her new husband in the new world, so far away from Bonnie Scotland. Though all three of their children were Canadian born, the culture of the old country would have remained pre-eminent in their household. Grandma’s cooking, especially.

Some of that influence was felt through to my own childhood, whether with Nairn’s Oat Cakes, Robertson’s Marmalade, or the music of Kenneth McKellar.

My grandparents died not long after I was born, and I have only faint memories of them. My grandfather’s stern countenance, Nellie’s sweet gentleness.

But I have the memory of Aunty Betty’s brown bread offering a shimmer of the flavours from their old world, and Scotland. And of Aunty Betty, herself, God bless her!

2 thoughts on “Aunty Betty’s “Brown Bread”

  1. Aunty Betty sure did love to cook in her tiny kitchen and she would send me pound cakes and Christmas puddings in what I always called “Red Cross Parcels” during my starving artist days in England. Those parcels were filled with such delicious contents and I, like my father, was more than parsimonious with whom I shared them. I believe there was always a loaf of Brown Bread that made it across Canada and the Atlantic to my little student hovels, south of the Scottish border. But maybe that is only in my dreams (it is a long way to send such a treat) for her bread was and remains, the stuff of dreams. Nice character profile too, bro. You’ve made me miss her big time.

    1. Thanks, Ian! Bread – and all food – does that! It stays in memory, as you say, and looms ever larger there, such that “her bread was and remains, the stuff of dreams.”

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