Bread is benediction, scenting the air with an aroma finer than blessed incense. To create bread-- mixing, kneading and shaping loaves-- is to forge a sacrament of consecration for a home and all who dwell in it.
Baking bread became an important part of my life when I was nine years old and my mother married a rancher. Avid to become a real country girl, I bought a red western hat to match my birthday cowboy boots, and joined 4-H. The Buttons and Bows 4-H Club was dedicated to teaching me how to preserve my young Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. Years and years and YEARS before yuppies discovered whole grain goodness, I attained the highest goal imaginable in our community by winning a purple ribbon at the State Fair for demonstrating bread-baking.
My narrow fame roused me to dreams of standing in a bright light while thousands applauded. Not long after my bread-baking success, I mounted the community hall stage to sing our 4-H club song, wearing a fringed blouse and skirt with a toy pistol strapped around my waist. My mother sang in a beautiful voice, but I was baffled by musical notes and never sang the same one twice. "My bones denounce the buckboard bounce," I bawled, "And the Cactus hurts my toes." I seem to recall yanking the cap pistol out of its flashy holster and firing it in the air as I quavered, "East is east and west is west and the wrong one I have chose."
Like my stubborn grandmothers crossing the plains, I forged ahead, making up in volume for lack of pitch. "Let's go where I'll keep on wearin those frills and flowers and buttons and bows." In the middle of my second shot at the chorus, I dared to look at my mother's face, and experienced a blinding bolt of understanding: I cooked better than I sang. My brief stage career was over when I stumbled down the steps; I vowed to dedicate myself to cooking.
My parents were determined I experience every advantage of country life; soon I was feeding caged rabbits and gathering eggs from a dozen hens. I learned to milk a cow and hoe the garden; it was several years before I realized that the tasks my parents advertised as "country experiences" were what other kids called chores.
Gnawing a sandwich at lunch one day, my father stared out the window; I'd learned to recognize such thoughtful pauses as a prelude to jobs guaranteed to enrich my adaptation to country culture. "My Maw," he finally announced, "baked bread three times a week. Why don't we ever have any homemade bread around here, Wife?"
Since my mother never learned how to bake bread, I was instructed to learn how. Soon I was baking bread once or twice a week. Using my mother's cookbooks, I devised a personal recipe that called for stone ground whole wheat flour. I bought a grain mill with my allowance, and traded butchering rabbits to a neighbor for organic wheat, already hulled.
Early on baking day, I'd scoop a double handful of slick dun-colored grains into a high-rimmed pan with a screen bottom. The wheat kernels were tinged with pink, like a tanned face blushing; I loved the silky feel of the fat grains running through my fingers. My father taught me how to winnow remaining hulls and mouse droppings from the wheat. We'd step off the back porch, backs to the constant breeze, and jerk the screen upward, tossing grain into the wind. The chaff and anything lighter than wheat blew away.
Back inside, I'd trickle a handful of grain into the hopper of the grinder permanently mounted on the kitchen counter, and turn the handle. Metal plates rotated, drizzling cracked wheat. I put each batch of wheat through the crusher three times, leaving a few tawny nuggets of grain. If I'd ground it another time or two, my flour would have been as fine as commercial varieties, but I liked a chewy texture.
Once the flour was ready, I'd scald a cup of whole milk, dipped from the jug in the refrigerator and dump the yeast into warm water. By the time the milk was hot, I'd have honey from a neighbor's bees, or dark molasses, in my big mixing bowl with chunks of butter I'd churned earlier in the week. The hot milk softened the honey enough to stir, until the mass was cool enough to risk adding yeast.
Adding the first cup of coarse wheat flour, I always debated with myself. The pale white flour my mother bought at the grocery store for pies and cakes smoothed the texture of the bread, making it rise higher in the pans, but I hated using anything store-bought. Sometimes I added wheat flour I'd milled a half-dozen times, until it was nearly as fine as the bleached kind. I saved the smaller grind for cakes and pie crusts, but my cakes never won prizes at the County Fair. "Tough!" the judges would write, slapping a white ribbon on the plate. Smug in the knowledge my cake was nutritious, I just smiled.
Once I'd added five cups of whole wheat flour, the bread dough was the consistency of concrete mixed for a bridge. Even if I gave in to my mother's pleas and added white flour, a double batch of bread dough was a weighty matter. I'd lift the ball out of the bowl and heave it onto the bread board, inhaling the fertile scent of yeast, the faint perfume of honey or molasses.
Bread dough is less predictable and only slightly less independent than a two-year-old child, and about the same weight. And like a child, if the bread is to develop a strong texture, it must be worked hard. I'd grab the outer edge, fold it to the inside and push with the heels of my hands; broken wheat kernels prodded my fingers. I'd rotate the globe of dough a quarter turn, fold and push, again and again and again. When my arms began to tire and the warm mass stuck to my fingers, I'd dip up a bit more wheat flour and scatter it across the board under the dough. I'd brush my sleeve over my forehead to soak up sweat, and begin again. Turn, fold, PUSH; turn, fold, WHACK; turn, crease SHOVE. My muscles hummed in rhythmic harmony with the natural world that provided the ingredients of that bread. As I pound and stretch the dough to its proper texture, my mind slipped into an ancient cadence. Tension subsided; my pulse beat to a simpler strain.
Up to my elbows in bread dough, I can let my mind meander. I can conduct rational and irrational arguments, THUMP the dough to emphasize what I should have said. I CAN analyze human and animal behavior while neatly folding and flipping. Decisions I've avoided for weeks have made themselves while I poke a finger into the shiny dough to check the tension.
No matter my mood when I began baking, kneading improved it. Baking bread is cheaper than other forms of therapy, like seeing a psychiatrist, drinking, or using drugs, and has offered me more consistent help. And I can eat the results; nibbling a therapist is always ill-advised.
Besides improving my mental health, blending dough provided as much exercise for my biceps and upper torso as if I'd lifted weights. Kneading makes me breathe deeply, pulling yeasty air deep into my lungs. When I finish, the dough is glistening and elastic, and both the dough and I are bouncy with vitality.
Once the dough is kneaded, it must be patted into a sphere and replaced in the bowl to rise until it doubles in bulk; waiting for its slow growth provides a chance to catch my breath and meditate.
I release any lingering hostility by punching the risen dough hard to drive air out. Briefly, I knead it again,; my breathing slows in rhythm with the strokes. Once I've shaped the dough into loaves and fitted it into my battered pans, I'm free to think again, or wash the baking dishes if I'm expecting company to eat my the homemade bread.
Baking, the bread scents the house with mingled fragrances; wheat smells nourishing, an incomparable odor, impossible to imitate. While waiting, I remove butter from the refrigerator to soften. The climax of the true bread-baking experience is the first taste. Tradition prohibits cutting the loaf; the true gourmet rips the end of the loaf away, burning her fingers. Cries of "Ow! Ouch! Yikes!" may punctuate the air; after all, some expensive therapists recommend screaming. Every pain disappears as I slather butter on a ragged mass of hot bread. Sorrows evaporate as the yellow seeps into a rich brown universe; the only problem is whether I can gnaw off a bite before the butter runs down my arm.
I open my mouth wide, and tear off a solid bite. The universe wobbles on its axis, then settles into an age-old throb of grace. Homemade bread.
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written 1994; published on the Windbreak House website 2011.
For more information:
The recipe for Linda's hand-kneaded bread shown in the photo above may be found in the Home Page Message archives of this website.
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