March weather can be unpredictable in Wisconsin, tossing blue skies and warm sun with snow and bitter winds. To keep herself grounded, Chris Seroogy cooks up a batch of her mother’s bray.
The snow banks shrink, water streams in rivulets to the ditches, and a south wind blows. It is that in-between time, time between cold and warmth. We are teased with a warm sun, but the wind still bites, especially so as we have foolishly and stylishly set aside the heavy wool coats and snow pants for lighter weight fabric. Yet, the wind still stings cold. It is March: kite flying weather. Many a time I stood out in the cold March wind flying kites with my children. Their colorful shapes splashed vibrantly in the pale blue, spring sky. But with our frozen fingers and numbed legs, the kite surged on its string alone, quite abandoned to a stake as we retreated to the house to warm up. Still, Wisconsinites have been known to make the best of strange weather. As such, this March I have decided to set aside my kite flying and instead stir up a batch of bray.
That’s what my mother called this unusual dish of pork roast, buckwheat flour, and spices though I found nothing on the web by that name. I checked the St. Boniface Mother’s Favorite Recipes cookbook and though four versions of the recipe are given in the 1969 edition—my mother’s copy—entitled Brai (B-R-A-I), Bray (B-R-A-Y), and Buckwheat Toast, the recipe is not even mentioned in the 1995 Heart of Our Home edition—my copy. Searching by ingredients, I finally came up with Scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch dish that was somewhat similar.
Mom served bray to us for breakfast. She mixed it up, put it into bread pans, and refrigerated it. The next morning it was sliced and fried in lard until crispy brown, and dished onto a serving platter. The aromatic fragrance of fried fat and cooked cloves and sage drifted over our large country kitchen. We’d fork crusty slices onto our plates and thickly pour white Karo syrup, covering every edge. My father would layer his between freshly-baked, buttered bread. We devoured it as fast as my mom fried it. Of course, by the time she thankfully sat down to her share, we had ambled from the table to begin our daily chores. My mom sat alone with her coffee and her creation, though always somewhat disappointed; it just didn’t taste as good as her mom’s.
In my married life, I have only prepared bray a few times. A few times we also bought a dense loaf of Bray at the grocery store. It tasted noticeably different. We knew altered amounts and diverse spices were used. Out of curiosity, I called around to several stores to see if any make the product for their deli. Alas, no one cooks it. So, the tradition of this breakfast “Buckwheat Toast” will have to continue with me.
I’ve vowed not to let March toss me about this year. I will wear jeans and Underalls to keep warm and hang onto that winter coat. I will save my kite flying for warmer April days. And I will buy a pork roast and buckwheat flour, and sit my ninety year old mother onto a chair next to my stove in her pink booties. I will measure, cook, stir, and taste until this dish stands ready for my family once again.