Bread. It’s so primal, deep. Crusty on the outside, airy and soft on the inside. Bread: The staff of life.
This phrase confused me when I was younger. I always thought, wait, staff, like a crew of employees?
Staff means support. In Asia, rice is the staff of life. In Iceland, maybe it’s shark meat. If you break it down, we probably all have different staffs of life—yoga, eggs, pancakes, meditation, liquor, writing, theater, love.
I don’t know about you but I am being bombarded with images of bread right now—Sarah in Kingston with her gorgeous sourdough rounds, David in Virginia with his beautifully marked crusty wheat, Eve in Philly shared an 18th century bread with cornmeal and molasses. These images appear daily.
Our daily bread. Which has religious connotations. I’m not a religious person so I believe daily acts and things—whether bread or water, music or books—these things can sustain us the way religion is meant to. Feed us.
Confession, I think people with bread machines are cheaters. I mean, isn’t part of the entire purpose of bread to work with the dough? To knead and flour, put your shoulders into it? Bread making is a physical act. But here’s the thing: I’m not making bread now, am I? No. Don’t you hate a complainer? Step out of the way and let those who are actually doing the work do it—I’m like an armchair bread maker referee, calling out fouls from the comfort of my living room.
We were a whole wheat bread family. White bread was thought to be not just unhealthy but also somehow vulgar. Even today I’d be hard pressed to order a sandwich on white bread, I certainly don’t buy loaves of white bread. And yet, what is a baguette but white bread? I’ll eat a sandwhich on a Kaiser roll, a burger on a white bun. Bagels are typically white unless you get pumpernickel. When it comes to bread, I’ll take all comers: thin dark German bread, rice bread, almond bread, rye, English muffins, cinnamon raisin bread. I love croutons and stuffing, dinner rolls and focaccia. Such a great word.
Bread is, hands down, my favorite food. And I’ve given it up so many times, I can’t even guess how many—sometimes for years, sometimes for a day. But how can I live without buttered toast?
Growing up the seventies, we had some great expressions for things. Some of them were holdovers from the sixties. Old lady meant girlfriend or wife. You called your car wheels or your ride, your house your and money was called bread.
I like that—bread as currency. Going to the store and paying with a loaf of bread you made. Bartering for wool, or for car repairs, IT support.
All of the baking that’s happening now, makes us feel like we’re returning to simple times, doesn’t it? It warms us. Because in addition to flour and yeast and whatever else you’re using to make it, we all understand that baking requires love. Like anything made by hand, making bread is a meditation, as is making cookies, baking a cake, rolling out piecrust. Our minds may drift during these activities, but they come back to thoughts of the person whose birthday it is or the friends who are coming over for dinner, the beautiful summer peaches we’re going to use in the pie.
I don’t recommend distracted baking—the cake I made yesterday, Lemon Cream Cheese Coffee Cake, I’d never made it before and I was doing a bunch of things at the same time— preparing for my online writers group, getting dinner ready— Ok, I may have messed up some of the steps. The cake looks wonderful and smells amazing but—what will happen when she cuts into it? That’s part of the thrill of baking, isn’t it? How will it turn out?
People having birthdays right now—ooh, I feel codependent, I want them all to have a good day. For our friend Kelley, a small group of us are caravanning over to her house this afternoon. We’re going to sing her Happy Birthday from our cars in her driveway. I’ll run out at one point and leave the cake on her porch. And once the coast has cleared, she’ll come out and get it. But what then?
I have so many questions.
Will the cake be ok? Will she like it? I asked her earlier this week if she likes lemon flavor and she said yes, so that’s good. But will I have made it well enough for it to have worked? Is it a bad idea to give an entire cake to someone who’s stuck at home by themselves? Is this act of baking kind or cruel?
Will I bake bread at some point during all this? Will I get drawn into the yeast finding frenzy? Maybe I’ll buy a bread machine. Will we all keep baking this much once this is over? When will this be over? What will it mean, to be over? What will our lives look like then? Will I eat in restaurants again? How will we sustain ourselves moving forward? Will there be new staffs of life? And what—somebody tell me, please—what will they be?