Brewery aroma heralds ripening of buckwheat

JACQUES KELLY

November 16, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

The buckwheat season arrived when the kitchen began smelling like a brewery.

It was well into the fall when my grandmother, Lily Rose, started her weekly buckwheat cake production. "Flannel cakes," her name for what everybody else called pancakes, could be made early Sunday morning. The same was true for her light and fluffy waffles.

The buckwheat batter was special. It needed a whole night to ferment and gurgle. The dish took guts to eat. There is no middle ground about this Baltimore breakfast. Either you savored its pungency or you fled the kitchen. Breakfast cowards settled for a bowl of corn flakes.

By the 1950s, when Lily was still turning out buckwheats on a weekly basis, television had invaded the old house on Guilford Avenue. She slipped into her kitchen sometime after the last chords of "Dark Eyes" had died down on bandleader Lawrence Welk's television show. Lily's egg beater was churning as Della Street and Perry Mason worked on a new case. Her whole operation was complete by the time "Bonanza" came on the air.

Occasionally she'd use an electric mixer. It threw wavy lines across the basement television set. The family Sylvania was always kept there; Lily had a strict rule. No dogs or TVs allowed above the first floor.

Lily Rose made the buckwheat batter the Saturday night before her elaborate Sunday breakfast because the gray, soup-like batter required a dose of yeast and a full 12 hours to ferment. A yellow crockery mixing bowl held all the ingredients. She covered the bowl with a linen tea towel. By the next morning the batter was giving off a yeasty kick that made the pantry smell like the American Brewery on Gay Street.

ily's ideal of what a buckwheat or flannel cake should be was a fairly small, light and thin pancake. Her griddle looked as if it had survived the 1904 Baltimore Fire. It was certainly older. A serving of her buckwheats meant about six or eight cakes, each 4 inches in diameter.

Lily Rose preferred her buckwheat flour to be water-ground, milled as her grandmother's was. Grist mills were uncommon in the 1950s, but the pork butcher's at the old city markets -- particularly Belair, Hollins and Lexington -- sold sacks of buckwheat flour.

The basic recipe included the buckwheat, boiling water, a yeast cake, brown sugar, white flour, salt and soda. The dish is widely regarded as one of Maryland's oldest traditional breakfasts.

Jane Chew Howard, an authority on 19th century Baltimore cooking, advises saving a cup of the yeasty batter to use as a starter for the following Sunday's meal, then saving a cup from that batch ad infinitum, or at least May, when warm weather makes the cakes too heavy.

Howard also says wet buckwheat batter is useful for taking grease out of soiled carpets. It's hard to say whether this will work or not. It may be propaganda invented by buckwheat's many detractors.

A taste for the Maryland buckwheat cake has to be acquired.

So does a similar taste for scrapple, which is the most logical accompaniment for buckwheat. It goes without saying that if you can polish off a platter of scrapple, buckwheat is no match.

In 1906, H. L. Mencken wrote that scrapple, sauerkraut and the buckwheat "constitute the great gastronomic trilogy of the late autumn.

"They are equally savory, and their ineffable essences are alike stimulating and revivifying. Sauerkraut, perhaps, is a shade the most nourishing, and the buckwheat cake, it must be admitted, is the most romantic of the trio."

Enough said. Pass the buckwheat cakes, scrapple and homemade ketchup.

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