Man may not live by bread alone but it’s a good place to start.
Bread is as essential to us of European descent as rice is to Asia. We “break bread” together. We give thanks for our “daily bread.” When women, a century ago, marched for better working conditions and the right to vote, they sang “Give us bread and roses.”
I grew up with bread-making. Mom made bread, six loaves at a time, almost every week. We knew what was in store the day she saved the potato water. Tomorrow, there’d be bread fresh out of the oven when we got home from school! We could taste it, smell it, from that moment on.
Next morning by breakfast-time, Mom was already scooping flour out of the bin. She baked so much that we bought flour (and sugar) in 100 lb sacks. (As an aside, those flour sacks were recycled. Once the flour was dumped out, she unpicked the seams, washed and bleached them to remove the trade marks – either Five Roses or Robin Hood – and then handed them off to me to hem for dish towels. She told me when she grew up during the Dirty Thirties, her mother made those flour sacks into underclothes for the girls or shirts for the boys). She was kneading the dough by the time we left for school. The bread was into its second rise when we came home for dinner – we lived only a quarter-mile from school – and soon it would be in the pans.
The heavenly aroma of bread greeted us as we ran in the door after school. The loaves were out of the pan, cooling. Time for “coffee”, the mid-afternoon lunch that was both tradition and ritual in our family. Mom and Dad had coffee; my brother and I had milk. Mom cut the still-warm bread; it steamed as she let the first piece – the heel – fall away. Then, to prevent a battle royal from breaking out, she cut the heel off the other end of the loaf.
You see, my brother and I both preferred the heel (still do) because we could slather on no end of butter and jam without it falling apart. The heel made a most satisfying crunch when we bit into it. And it had more flavour, or so we claimed, than the inner slices.
By the end of “coffee,” we had demolished the better part of that first loaf.
Bread-making fell by the wayside for many families. It was easier to get your loaf ready-made from the grocery store or the bakery. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, people seem to have rediscovered bread-making. Yeast and flour are almost as rare as toilet paper.
My husband uses a bread machine but, for me, the grind and thump of the machine is no substitute for the physical, visceral experience of kneading bread. At its most elemental, it is a communion of person, flour, water and yeast.
Kneading is meditation – turn, fold, push, repeat again and again. I rock back and forth with each turn and push.
It is physical – I feel the dough give and resist, give and resist.
It is sensual – the smell of flour and yeast, the dough turning from sticky and obstreperous to smooth and satiny. Every now and then, the dough speaks, a slight squeak as an air bubble pops.
And it is memory reenacted, memories of my mother and her mother before her, standing at a counter, participating in a ritual generations-old.
Then magic happens. This seemingly inert mass of flour and water and yeast grows and expands before your very eyes. It seems so fragile – poke it and it collapses with a sigh. Yet it is resilient; it expands once again, this time taking the shape of whatever you want to create, be they loaves, buns, cinnamon rolls – the possibilities are endless.
Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from bread-making in the midst of this pandemic – that even though we may appear fragile, we are also resilient. Although we may collapse in the face of something overwhelming, we will rise again. That our strength, our resiliency, grows out of our malleability.
There’s more than food for the body in that humble loaf of bread.
#BreadMaking #Meditation #ChildhoodMemories #COVID19 #Resiliency #Hope #Courage #MargaretGHanna