Each night, in a space he’d make
between waking and purpose,
my grandfather donned his one
suit, in our still dark house, and drove
through Brooklyn’s deserted streets
following trolley tracks to the bakery.
There he’d change into white
linen work clothes and cap,
and in the absence of women,
his hands were both loving, well
into dawn and throughout the day—
kneading, rolling out, shaping
each astonishing moment
of yeasty predictability
in that windowless world lit
by slightly swaying naked bulbs,
where the shadows staggered, woozy
with the aromatic warmth of the work.
Then, the suit and drive, again.
At our table, graced by a loaf
that steamed when we sliced it,
softened the butter and leavened
the very air we’d breathe,
he’d count us blessed.
In my family, one of the chores we are rotating during the pandemic is the weekly trip to the grocery store. We visit the grocers that from experience seem to be doing the best job of instituting parameters to protect both the shoppers and the workers. Each week, the report back from the aisles continues to be that a particular product (and not just toilet paper) had disappeared from the shelves – graham crackers or frozen fruit or chicken breasts or skim milk. This week eggs were scarce. And, each week the missing food reflects either the news cycle such as the infection rate at meat processing facilities or the home bound food fashion of the moment such as s’mores or smoothies. Current consumption clearly reflects the new realities of a challenged food system, our deepest fears and our desire for comfort foods often tied to deeply held memories and rituals.
Overall, Americans aren’t used to food scarcity of this magnitude. Since WWII, food limitations have been primarily related to one’s ability to pay and not so much to availability. The only time I remember seeing markets with predominantly empty shelves was in college. It was 1988, and I visited the former Soviet Union during my junior year abroad in West Germany. Gray was the dominant color of the weather, buildings, clothing and the mood. And, canned goods, potatoes and bread were the only staples available for purchase by the average consumer.
So, I am not surprised that flour is one hot commodity right now and bread baking has seen a resurgence. Bread was maligned in recent years as Americans continue to search for a scapegoat in our rising rates of obesity. Carbohydrates became the latest target now that eggs and animal fats have been largely redeemed. Yet, bread isn’t going anywhere. It is an ancient food across cultures and continents. It is a part of religious rituals and symbolic of holy covenants. Bread is part of our idiomatic expressions and everyday speech – your daily bread, earn your bread and butter or the best thing since sliced bread, for example. So, I am happy to see us get reacquainted with yeast and discover the benefits to our mental health from kneading dough and the rest that follows.
I am returning to bread baking myself, having some experience and a deep, abiding affection for homemade bread, salted butter and canned preserves. I particularly like the dark, flavorful and filling breads of my German heritage made of grains such as rye and spelt. Weekly bread baking goes back generations in my family, no recipe required. I ate sandwiches for lunch on homemade bread. Homemade bread was a part of nearly every dinner. And, bread was slathered with butter and honey and eaten late at night to calm the fears of a child unable to sleep when fears and wounds came out of the closet and held me hostage.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of knowing some serious bread bakers and being the grateful and satisfied recipient of their creations. Bread may bring you closer to your maker. In my experience, it also builds relationships as is almost always true when eaten across the table from the hands of the maker. Working with ingredients from scratch is a labor of love these days, one to be shared, one to be passed down, and one to revere. Bread is a blessing that fills all the senses and binds us to one another across time and distance, beliefs and cultures. So, I say, “Bake bread!” And, more importantly, eat it heartily, knowing at least one good may come from all the current hardships, something to be shared with our children and our children’s children along with all the other stories and lessons coming out of 2020.
When the children in my class make bread, they know that after all the hard work of sifting and pouring, mixing first with a spoon and then with their hands, and kneading the dough for a long, long time, in order for the miracle of rising to take place, they must rest. They must take their hands away and give the dough a chance to grow.
~The Miracle of the Bread Dough Rising by Paula Lawrence Wehmiller