Did Henry David Thoreau Invent Raisin Bread?

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In (belated) celebration of the birthday of Henry David Thoreau, we take a look at a historical food mystery.

In his seminal biography on Henry David Thoreau, Walter Harding, widely recognized as America’s leading Thoreau scholar for more than 40 years, leaves no stone unturned in his quest to piece together a nuanced portrait of the philosopher and his life. He writes, in a chapter on Thoreau’s diet and kitchen life:

“Thoreau experimented frequently with his bread making and soon learned that an unleavened variety was simplest. When he added raisins to the dough, it was said that he became the inventor of raisin bread. Concord housewives were reportedly shocked at the innovations.”

The fact is attributed to a 1943 Ladies’ Home Journal story by Ann Batchelder, and has seeped into Thoreau mythology to the point of being referenced on the modern-day stone tablets of Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for Harding, though, the invention of raisin bread cannot be entirely attributed to Thoreau—food historians and amateur detectives with access to cookbook libraries have found mentions of dried grapes in baked goods goes back to the 1700s, and in 1951, the Bulletin of the Thoreau Society began to sow the seeds of skepticism:

Thoreau folklore—or should we say fakelore?—Several years ago there was a rash of ascribing the invention of raisin bread to Thoreau. The newest legend is that Thoreau introduced the strawberry to Cape Cod. State Senator Michael Flanagan argued in the Boston Statehouse on May 10 that Thoreau stole it from North Andover and transplanted it to the cape.”

In 1990 Harding gave a speech to the Thoreau Society admitting he’d been taken in by the Journal, but readers of Walden may still find themselves hungry for baked goods as the author finds himself contemplating an excursion with a friend and mourning the inevitable loss of his bread:

“I cannot resist joining you. My brown bread, sweetened with molasses and raisins, will soon be gone. I will go with you gladly soon.”