Last month, I treated myself to a slice of canned brown bread. It was part of my family’s traditional Halloween meal when I was growing up: canned brown bread, baked beans, and hot dogs. The tradition actually began with my mom’s mom, Alice, and my mom carried it on with her own kids. If you’re from New England, this meal probably sounds pretty standard, but I’m from Chicago. I asked my Minnesotan mom how and why her Wyoming-born mom got into canned bread, and her answer was simple: “I don’t know.” She went on: “Some things just seem normal when you’re a kid, and you don’t realize it’s weird until it’s too late to ask.”
My grandma passed away nearly two decades ago, and this mysterious Halloween tradition is one of her many enduring legacies. Every fall, as houses become covered in fake spiderwebs and the air gets crisp, I crave a circular slice of brown bread.
When I say “canned bread,” I mean exactly that: bread that comes in a can. Not the Pillsbury kind that you pop in the oven and then it’s bread—that’s canned dough. This is fully edible bread that comes in a can. A loaf of canned brown bread is the size and shape of a standard-sized can. Makes sense. It usually has ridges on its sides, imprinted from the metal can in which it’s been preserved. Brown bread is very dense, and it is eaten in half-inch cylindrical slices. You can eat it as-is, or, as I prefer, give it a quick toast. Some top it with cream cheese or jam, but I’m a butter-only gal. It’s not meant to be sandwich bread. It’s a thick, hefty snack in and of itself. To the uninitiated, yes, “canned bread” is an objectively gross-sounding combination of words. I get that. But—get over yourself! It’s delicious.
Brown bread has been around for millennia, but the American variety cropped up in colonial New England sometime in the 17th century. It was made then, as it is today, primarily of cornmeal, rye flour, and molasses. These were three prominent ingredients in early American cooking, as early settlers had limited access to other kinds of flours, and molasses was the country’s most popular sweetener until the late 1800s. (Indeed, New England’s love for molasses proved deadly in the early 20th century.) It wasn’t until the 1920s or 1930s that brown bread got the canned treatment courtesy of Portland, Maine–based cannery Burnham and Morrill.
In the brown-bread-and-beans cinematic universe, all roads lead to B&M. It’s the brand my mom still eats every Halloween, and the one her mom did too. The company, currently owned by B&G Foods, Inc., has been around for over 150 years. Way back when, it canned all kinds of foods: pork, beef, veggies, clams, herring, and lobsters (c’mon, it’s Maine), to name a few. It got into baked beans in the early 20th century, and its website references a “post-war surge in baked bean sales” in the 1950s. That bean surge might’ve encouraged their pivot to the B&M we know today, which sells varieties of just two things: canned brick-oven baked beans, and canned brown bread. A pure line of retail if I’ve ever seen one.
For me, the joy of eating canned bread is partially in the nostalgia and the flavor. But mostly, it’s in the purity of eating bread that’s shaped like a can. Americans eat so much processed food — breads, ketchup, meats, everything. And no shame, they’re delicious! But as consumers have grown aware of the dangers of such foods, distributors have gotten increasingly comfortable rebranding mass-produced foods as “good for you.” We still eat garbage all the time, but with muted colors on the packaging and a leaf with the words “wholesome goodness” on it, marketers coax us into forgetting that we’re eating factory-made junk.
That’s why I love eating bread shaped like a can. I’m not being duped into thinking some rugged, graying farmer with sun-kissed cheeks just plucked these ingredients directly from the bountiful soil. No visuals of California mountains or Iowa plains or New York apple orchards come to mind. Instead, a cylindrical, gelatinous mass slides out of the can and the metal ridges and sharp edges and flat tops of the can remain visible, as if to proudly declare, “I WAS NOT MADE IN NATURE.” In slicing up a can of bread, I come face-to-face with an American truth. It’s not that I want all foods to be shaped like cans. But eating food in the literal shape of a man-made metal object—not just any object, but a can, the item integral to the development of mass-market foods—is a necessary reminder of what we’re putting in our bodies. Plus, it tastes so good with a glob of butter.