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Frozen In Time: A Johnny Bread Tradition [VIDEO]

Ashli Gerdes, WJON News

COLLEGEVILLE — Thousands of St. John’s University students have shared a similar experience for more than a century that stems back the 1800s.

Although there is no official record of when Johnny Bread first made its debut at St. John’s, it’s believed to have started at the end of the 19th Century.

Brother William Baldus from Germany began making the dark wheat bread in a hearth oven made out of brick around 1880.

The first monks were from Bavaria and were accustomed to eating rye bread. At the time, wheat bread was considered to be for royalty. Wheat was very popular in America so the university began making both rye and wheat bread.

Brother Baldus decided to start combining the rye and wheat bread into one loaf. The recipe called for one part rye flour to four parts wheat.

Kenneth Jones is the author of The Loaf That Became A Legend. He says Brother Baldus decided to reinvent St. John’s bread, “I have no idea why he started that combination. Maybe he was tired of doing two different kinds of bread, or he was just an inventive guy and decided to combine it–but people really liked it.”

The first loaves were approximately eighteen inches long and eight inches thick. Students ate bread at every meal. In the 1920s students had a 3:00 p.m. break in their day to eat freshly baked bread.

St. John’s students ate anywhere from half of a loaf of bread to a loaf of bread daily. That’s somewhere between 1,200 and 2,400 calories of bread each day.

Jones says, “It became a part of their lives. It felt like St. John’s to them.”

In the 1950s the university decided to turn the bread into a franchise and sell it throughout the country. Chemist Dr. Betty Sullivan developed a mix that was sold nationwide. From 1959 to 1960 St. John’s sold about 56,000 mixes that netted them about $562,000.

A group of Franciscan nuns took over the bread operation in 1913 and continued it until the 1950s. Since then, it has been a job lead solely by St. John’s students.

Dave Schoenberg is the director of dinning services at St. John’s. He says the bread isn’t baked on a pan, “it’s baked right on the shelf with cornmeal. That gives it the nice crispy crust.”

Today Johnny Bread is made nearly the same way it was back in the late 1800s and continues to be served to students with each meal.

See more of our Frozen In Time series

See a short video of Johnny Bread below.

Video photo credits: St. John’s Abbey Archives/ The Loaf That Became A Legend

 

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