I found an old copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets at the library a few weeks ago. It took me a while to get through, not because I put it down in favor of other pursuits, but because it’s simply a lot to digest. Every sentence, even every word, of Fisher’s writing carries a weight, a history. Having read The Gastronomical Me a few years ago, I had forgotten how she manages to pack so much literary grit into a meal.
One word struck me in particular. Fisher uses the word ‘honest’ in vignette after vignette to describe anything from bread to soup to an entire repast. Honest bread. Honest borscht.
What is honest? Is this an old-fashioned turn of phrase, a colloquialism? Would Mary Francis Kennedy have wondered at my use of the word ‘cool’ thinking that I must have an obsession with chilled food? Or is honest food really a philosophy of gastronomy? And if so, what qualifies as honest? Simple, beautiful tomatoes grown in the backyard must be honest; upfront, origins known, nothing to hide. The fresh little quahog clams my brother brings in from the Rhode Island shore seem honest, they are straightforward and best enjoyed simply steamed and dunked in a bit of salty butter.
And I have to wonder, if there is honest food, is there dishonest food? I suppose that fast food burritos stuffed with meat of suspect provenance might be considered dishonest. So-called healthy snacks, stripped of fats and stuffed with sugar and unpronounceable chemicals… those are perhaps a bit deceitful. But overall, I think what Fisher was praising was the basic authenticity, the traditional wholesome nature of the most humble dishes. In an era when condensed soup, lily-white sliced bread and flavored gelatin were all the rage, she advocated for simple, thoughtful meals.
As I was punching down bread dough this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if my bread would have passed the honesty test. The thought nagged at me until I started to smell the cinnamon wafting through the kitchen as the bread baked. A thick slice of cinnamon toast, slathered with good sweet butter, has to be as honest as it gets. To my mind, ‘honest’ conjures images of a warm and homey kitchen, a place filled with the scent of cinnamon and plenty of laughter. A place to sit, with a cup of tea, a slice of cinnamon swirl bread, and someone you love.
Cinnamon Swirl Bread
makes 1 loaf
3/4 cup warm water
1 packet active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups white flour, plus extra for dusting
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Stir together the water, yeast and sugar and let sit for 5 minutes. Stir in 3 teaspoons of oil, the salt, and both flours until a ragged dough forms. Turn out the dough on a floured surface and knead to a smooth ball (about 5 minutes of kneading). Place the dough in a greased bowl and let rest in a warm place for an hour.
Punch down the dough and then pinch it into an 8 inch square. Mix the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a small bowl. Spread all but two tablespoons of the cinnamon mixture evenly on the dough. Roll up the dough jelly roll style and transfer to a greased loaf pan. Allow the dough to rise again in a warm place for about 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the top of the dough with the remaining teaspoon of oil and sprinkle with the reserved cinnamon mixture. Bake 35 to 40 minutes until lightly browned. Cool before slicing.