Related Story: A Taste of History
Those familiar with Bozeman’s history would have recognized the names of Mrs. Willson and Mrs. Koch. But Belle McDonald is a lesser-known figure. It was serendipitous when I found an identical potato bread recipe in both Emma Willson’s and Belle McDonald’s cookbooks—in Mrs. Willson’s, it’s titled “Belle’s Bread;” in Belle’s, simply “Bread.” So, we can reasonably conclude “Belle’s Bread” is referring to Belle McDonald herself.
A quick search for Belle in local databases revealed very little material. Why is this? Likely two reasons: Belle was a Black woman, and she wasn’t rich. Her parents, two former slaves freed during the Civil War, arrived in Montana in 1864. Belle was born in about 1874. According to census records, Belle was employed as a housekeeper, working in the home of Mrs. Ettie Fielding. She never married or had children and lived in the family’s home at 308 S. Tracy Ave. her entire life.
Belle and her two sisters helped form Bozeman’s Sweet Pea Study Club, a local chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (MFCWC). Their club encouraged women’s suffrage, raised community funds, provided books to the local library, and actively spoke out against discriminatory racial laws. Belle and her sisters were well-known for their cooking prowess, with Belle listed as part of the “best cooks in the state” in the MFCWC’s 1922 cookbook.
2 regular-sized russet potatoes
3 tablespoons warm water
2 envelopes active dry yeast (about 4½ teaspoons)
1 tablespoon Crisco or unsalted butter
1 spoonful sugar
1 cup hot water
2 teaspoons salt
4½–5 cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
When you are ready to make the bread: peel, boil, and thoroughly mash the potatoes. (This can also be done ahead of time – or with leftover mashed potatoes.) Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Measure water into glass measuring cup. (It should be warm, not too hot or you will kill the yeast.) Sprinkle yeast on top. Mix gently and let yeast “proof”, which just means to let it activate. You can tell this is happening because the yeast gets puffy in the water. This will take about 5 minutes.
Place butter or Crisco into a bowl and add sugar. Pour hot water onto the butter and sugar, allowing both to melt. Whisk in mashed potatoes and salt. Pour in 1 cup of flour and mix. Pour in yeast, baking soda, and sugar-water mixture.
Begin kneading together, adding in 3½-4 cups of flour, enough so the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers. Place dough in a bowl, let rise for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Place into two 8- by 4-inch loaf pans and allow to rise again for another 45 minutes. Bake for 25-30 minutes.