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STAFF OF LIFE


Beside soup and possibly love, bread is perhaps the greatest source of sustenance the world has ever known. You can’t live on love alone, but it is possible to live on soup and bread.

It was 9:00 o’clock on a sunny summer morning when a small group of bright-eyed women, aprons in hand, converged on my kitchen, all intent upon taking home a loaf of their very own homemade bread for dinner. It wasn’t a regular cooking class, just a few curious friends interested in finding out what was so mysterious about a food which had sustained humans from nearly every culture since they stumbled out of their caves. We were doing different yeast recipes, and each woman took her choice of one.

The variety of bread around the world is mind-boggling. From tortillas from Mexico to the airy croissant of Paris, each have their place in history and on our dinner tables.

Bread is politically correct, not caring if you are a Democrat or a Republican, or a Catholic or Jew. A few yeast cells in a bowl of flour and some water, in a suitable length of time, can transport you to nirvana. The added pleasure of bread making is the glorious smell of baking bread, better to me than the most expensive bottled perfume.

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Once on a rainy morning in Paris a line of people drew me into the convention hall opposite Notre Dame cathedral where a large group of professional bakers were contending for prizes in their particular offerings. A good many were making sculptural renditions with bread dough. There were baskets, animals, flowers, etc. All impractical but beautiful.

The divine smell combined with the excitement and chatter of the great number of onlookers all engrossed in watching the expertise of the various bakers, was a morning I won’t forget. If you are a bread baker, or if your mother or grandmother supplied your daily bread you will know what I mean.

A week or so ago, I had made two kinds of bread plus a few jars of apricot jam. A grandson stopped by and promptly relieved me of a jar of jam and a loaf of bread. Clearly the smell of one or both were too much for him. I well remember my mother’s kitchen on baking day. It was like waiting for Christmas to come before she would allow me to cut into the warm loaf and slather it with jelly. It was a nice beacon to get me to hurry home from school on those days.

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In my own kitchen on our communal baking day, the several bowls were rising nicely except for one disappointed lady, whose dough looked sullen and unhappy with its situation in the bowl, so we had a vote and decided it might be better to toss it in the waste bin and she could try again. Given the unpredictability of yeast dough, the silly thing began to rise nicely while nestled comfortably among the leftover cabbage leaves! Not that it was planned, but cabbage can make a good biga, otherwise known as a yeast starter. Serendipitous.

We keep our kitchens so sanitary, and have all sorts of modern equipment to make baking fast and fun. We fuss over the dough trying to make it perfect. But yeast has a mind of its own and will do whatever it pleases.

In my first summer of staying with the Pueblo, I became part of the morning baking for the village. There were six of us working together to make about twenty-four loaves.

After the dough was mixed and while it was rising, a number of pieces of wood went into the beehive oven, and when the heat felt right and charred a small piece of paper, the dough went in. No timer, no thermometer, no bread pans, nothing fancy. When someone figured it was right, the first loaf came out and was thumped to see how it sounded, and it was pronounced done. Their people had been making bread the same way for centuries.

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My friend whose dough took a vacation in the wastebin, reminded me of that day recently. I don’t know if any of them still make bread, but I do. Every week. Drop over sometime and have a warm slice with butter and jam.

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12 comments on “STAFF OF LIFE

  1. Yes, where would we be without bread or without bread-making skills? Back on the days of our farm we used to bake bread after the pizzas had their turn in the large wood fired oven.
    You can’t bake bread in an I/pod/pad/tablets. A great pity there isn’t an app. for it.
    Great story Kayti. I can smell the bread.

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  2. This post is so warm and delightful, especially the image of the yeast dough in the dust bin. I laughed out loud. Bread is my weakness. Especially garlic bread.
    Did you freeze all of your bread? Did you make challah? How have you stayed so slim baking so much bread?

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    • Do you remember my friend Kay Mervin? She’s the one who had trouble with her yeast. The baking day was always an entire day, so they each took their bread home. I usually make only a couple for us, and freeze one. The best challah I ever ate was the Sacramento one Teri got for one of the boys. I made it a few times, I keep thinking a brioche would be lovely braided.

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  3. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read such a positive account of bread and bread making. It seems lately that every time I mention the word “bread,” someone hits me with another diatribe on “wheat belly”. I have no intentions of giving up bread, so I close my ears.

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  4. Fab story about the yeast with a mind of its own. Homemade apricot jam and bread would be my idea of a perfect meal xx

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  5. At the other end of the bread-production spectrum, there was a loaf that everyone thought someone else was responsible for once it went into the oven. When I woke up from my nap, my houseboy (this was in Liberia and, no, it wasn’t considered unutterably colonial to have a houseboy) was laughing himself silly. The bread had baked for about four hours, and was hard as the proverbial rock. The kids played football with it for a couple of weeks, until someone left it out in the rain, and that was the end of that.

    To be quite frank, I cheered when the White House Executive Pastry Chef resigned the other day, saying he didn’t intend to demonize sugar, eggs, butter and cream. Good food, including good bread, is one of life’s greatest gifts. I’m as concerned with healthy eating as the next person, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to become a new-age ascetic. As you say, a little moderation can cure every sort of ill. If we don’t want to pack on the pounds, we can eat less. But we don’t have to eat worse.

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  6. Linda,
    I laughed reading about the bread which baked for four hours! It served double duty when the kids got hold of it. I hadn’t heard about the White House chef resigning. No, even if you do become gluten intolerant, you can still enjoy bread with gluten-free flour. I think sometimes it’s a good excuse to avoid putting on extra pounds. Julia Child taught me years ago that you don’t need to go without these good for you things. Just push your plate away. Kayti

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