A half crown. That’s how much a loaf of bread would have cost you in Charleston in 1749. Hefty and hearty, the half crown bread was the foundation of the nascent city, and at a price enforced by the king.
As historian Walter Edgar writes in his South Carolina: A History, bread production was regulated by law: “On the first of each month the colony’s commissary general published how much a ‘half-crown loaf,’ the standard size, had to weigh. The size of the loaf fluctuated according to the price and quality of the flour (white, wheaten, or household).”
“That half crown loaf was derived from usually some kind of whole wheat, then the other 50 percent was from what they called shipstuff, which was what they made ship biscuits out of, an earlier form of hard tack,” explains Husk Chef Justin Cherry.
A history nerd in every sense of the phrase, Cherry has been fascinated by the early colonial period and its foodways for years. And that’s why he’s spent the last few months outfitting a flatbed trailer with a to spec 18th century clay oven he plans to tow around town for a historically correct pop-up he’s calling Half Crown Bakehouse.
Not surprisingly Cherry’s love of history began with reenacting.
“I started out reenacting the Revolutionary War and French and Indian War as a child,” he says. “Both my mom and dad, my brother does it, his side of the family, my wife does it. My dad was a history major and my mom and my grandma had a spice business and did small festivals and through that they met a reenacting group that did French and Indian War in like ’88 or ’89, and two years after that was when The Last of the Mohicans was filmed and I was an extra in that.”
But it wasn’t until Cherry got injured while playing football at the University of Rhode Island that he realized his real calling was cooking.
“I always loved cooking. My grandmother owned a bakery. The Depression was when her dad opened that bakery and then she worked in it after school and that’s where I heard all the stories of her making rolls and bread. She was the kind of grandma that cooked a lot and I’d hang out there a lot. The same with my mom,” says Cherry. “I mean I was making cookies at like five. I’m pretty sure I made my first loaf of really crappy bread at nine.”
After his ACL injury dashed his college football dreams, Cherry dropped out of URI and moved home to Pennsylvania where he started culinary school. But it wasn’t long until he realized he could learn more on the job at restaurants. He worked at Pittsburgh’s Lucca, then North Country Brewing before taking a job in Maine as a head chef at a small inn south of Bar Harbor.
This all lead to a three-day stage at McCrady’s in 2009 that resulted in Cherry’s lightbulb moment.
“It was when Charleston was in the beginning of its charcuterie era,” he says. “I got to do charcuterie with Sean [Brock] and Travis [Grimes] while I was on my stage and I just wanted to learn more.” From there Cherry found himself working for renowned butcher Dario Cecchini in Panzano, Italy.
“I learned how to butcher cows, pork, and a little sausage and salami,” says Cherry. The study abroad was pretty dreamy, but throughout his time in Italy, Cherry stayed in touch with Brock and when the celebrity chef told him he was opening a new place called Husk in Charleston, Cherry knew he had to be a part of it. He started at Husk as butcher, then worked his way up to sous, chef de cuisine, and eventually was named chef de cuisine at McCrady’s Tavern before returning to Husk.
“I preferred Husk a little better and that gave me time to think about what I wanted to do on the side,” says Cherry. Which brings us back to Half Crown Bakehouse.
His fire on wheels weighs 3,200 pounds.
“It’s like six-foot-long by five-foot wide on an 11 foot trailer and the trailer is made with wide beam planks and then I have panels modeled after 1730s German architecture, handhewn pieces of wood that hide the wheels,” says Cherry. Once he gets to his pop-up destination, he’ll unload his wood — hickory and pecan for historical accuracy — then set out his sign designed by woodcarver Vernon DePauw, gather his dough (all made from heirloom grains courtesy of Anson Mills), and start heating up the clay oven.
“Baking with wood fire is super different because it’s residual. You basically have to start the fire, get it hot, and then pull everything out. And let it cool to like 500 degrees,” says Cherry. It’s no easy task and something American colonists did entirely by feel. But Cherry is an old hand at it. He’s been managing Husk’s wood fire brunch bread program for three years. Every Saturday night everything gets pulled out of the Husk oven. “There are times I’ve had to dump ice in there because it’s like 700 degrees,” he says. Then Cherry goes in at 4:45 a.m. the next day and fires the bread. It takes about 45 to 50 minutes. That’s for about six to seven loaves.
It’s a different story for what Cherry plans to do at big reenactments. For those, he’ll bake about 15 loaves at a time.
“If I’m gonna sell by the loaf, I gotta do about 40 loaves. So super early in the morning, 3 or 3:30 or 4 in the morning, when everybody else is sleeping, I’ll be making bread,” he says.
Waking up at o’dark hundred to make old timey bread for people wearing tricorns may sound less like a hobby and more like a punishment to some, but not to Cherry.
“I’m super jacked up about it,” he says.
Look for Half Crown Bakehouse pop-ups around Charleston starting next month.