Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The empty shelf in the baking aisle means, once again, there’s no yeast. I can’t find yeast in any store between Eugene and our house in the Oregon woods fifty miles away. It’s summer, and our state is pretty much open now — toenails painted in salons and beer on tap in bars and cases of hand sanitizer stacked in storerooms — but it’s still ridiculously hard to buy a jar of yeast.
What I want even more than yeast is to join the racial-justice protesters gathered at the park I passed on my way into town: maybe a dozen folks who keep it up, week after week, with their homemade signs and pepper-spray goggles. But I can’t. A husband at home with cancer relegates me to bystander status during the pandemic. I make donations and call senators, but I must watch from a distance.
At the store I track down a clerk and, from behind my mask, ask him to search again for the square packages of leavening grains that I seem to be desperate for. I imagine he’s tempted to point out the shelves behind me, heaped with bread: white bread, wheat bread, sourdough, baguettes, ciabatta — a plethora of loaves and rolls and pastries, wrapped in plastic and ready to be toted home. But store-bought bread misses the point. It’s the act of baking that eases my anxieties. Baking is a visceral connection to my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and the women who came before them, who survived all manner of challenge and emerged on the other side of tragedy to set a loaf of bread on the table. It’s not that I believe bread is what saved them, but when I plunge my hands into dough made from my great-grandmother’s recipe, it’s as if I’m standing next to her again: her gnarled fingers kneading and pulling, the musky smell when she lifts her arms, the bend in her back, the heat from her oven warming my neck.
I ditch the hunt for yeast and decide the leavening power of my sourdough starter will have to be enough. And with that I have brought up the ultimate COVID-shutdown cliché: sourdough starter. My own jar of gray paste is kin to a starter kept alive by my grandmother, and later by my mother. I hauled mine through college years to my first marriage, through raising children, then divorce and a second marriage. Fed with nothing but flour and water, the starter soldiers on, my companion of many decades. It’s been passed down from woman to woman in my family for a century and a half. I imagine gurgling containers wrapped in damp rags and tucked into a pioneer wagon packed with household goods as my forebears sought a new life in the frontier West. No matter how their plans unraveled, the women could count on a delicate, airy rise in their bread.
I grew up in 1960s and ’70s Idaho, a hundred years after the pioneers. By then our family’s sourdough starter had become more novelty than necessity. The container of white goo in my grandmother’s fridge was brought out only for pancakes, a twenty-four-hour production involving batter bubbling overnight in a warm corner of the kitchen. I couldn’t understand: At home it took us about ten minutes to whip up pancakes. Why did my grandmother go to such a fuss?
We barely tipped over into middle-class when I was a child, but, unlike those forebears who made the months-long journey and put down roots in Idaho, we always had food. I don’t remember a single day when I wasn’t full. On Sunday mornings at my grandmother’s I heaped a plate with her sourdough pancakes, crisp around the edges and tart in the middle, sopping with butter and syrup. Two strips of bacon on the side. Two eggs fried in bacon fat for my grandfather. A mess of fried trout, caught and gutted that morning. As if it had been that way forever.
My mother, in her bid to be modern, bought boxes of Bisquick, and on Sunday mornings she let my sister and me add water and an egg to make waffles. She drove us to the bakery outlet, where she purchased a dozen loaves of expired Wonder Bread to store in the chest freezer in our garage, next to packages of frozen vegetables and ground beef to mix with Hamburger Helper. The four of us kids, home from school an hour or so before our mother got off work, often pulled a loaf from the freezer and thawed pieces in the toaster. We slathered our slices with butter and pressed the drippy bread into a plate of white sugar. This was our preferred snack, unless there were Pop-Tarts in the cupboard; unless there were Twinkies. My mother’s kitchen was a delight of processed and packaged food. So easy! A roommate in college had to convince me that I could bake a cake from scratch. I had a notion of a secret ingredient inside the Duncan Hines box, a nugget of knowledge a layperson like me was not allowed to know.
My mother — before her mind could no longer follow a thread from one moment to the next; before we set her down in the senior home, where her meals were delivered to her room on a plastic tray — kept her starter in the back of her refrigerator and often proclaimed that next weekend she would get it out to make the special pancakes. If not next weekend, then the one after — promise! In the days following her death, I found her starter in the refrigerator, stuck in a puddle of its own making, rarely if ever opened. We, her children, poured out the glob reeking of basement mold, a piece of our heritage sucked down the drain.
Though I was well-fed as a kid, I was also starving for something I couldn’t name. I recall traveling with my maternal grandmother to the family farm in Wendell, Idaho. Uncle Dwight was usually on the tractor while my grandmother Mamie and her sister-in-law Thelma visited in the kitchen. That’s what my grandmother called any encounter of more than a few minutes with another woman: “visiting.” They sat at a table nestled into an alcove and sipped mugs of coffee, while I was given milk. I didn’t want to drink it, because it had come not from a store, like regular milk, but from a cow whose lowing could be heard through an open window. Particles of what I was sure were hay and dung floated on the surface.
What I pined for was Great-Aunt Thelma’s bread, which she told me was made from a recipe that reached back generations. I couldn’t see the loaves in her oven, but I could smell them. They smelled like the perfect weight of blankets on a winter night; like the loving and attentive parents I thought I deserved; like the solution to every natty problem that might crop up in life. When Thelma pulled those loaves from the oven, steam billowed to her ceiling, and I waited to shove that hot bread down my gullet until every raw, empty space inside me was stuffed with its goodness. Of course, I didn’t have the language then to conjure such thoughts — I was only seven.
But now I want to go back and warn that kid to stop ascribing so much meaning to bread, or else she will develop a lifelong belief that baking it and eating it might right every wrong. Even now, when nothing else will come together at work or at home or in the larger constellation of the world, I blend a few simple ingredients, set those in a hot oven, and wait to pull out a miracle of well-being.
At thirty-four I was divorced, living in a new town with a new job, and raising four daughters. Too often I came home tired, whining children in tow, to find our electricity had been turned off because I couldn’t cover the bill. Or I’d go out to the street and find a boot on my car due to unpaid parking fines. At the end of the month I’d play the “coin game” with my girls: searching pockets and backpacks and sofa cushions to find enough change for our most-required groceries. My daughters didn’t have tight jeans and sparkly T-shirts and springy hair ties like their friends. They didn’t have the right shoes (and those shoes were it). We didn’t go on vacations or out to dinner. We sometimes slipped into the $1.50 movie on rainy weekend afternoons with four cans of root beer, one real beer, and a bag of popcorn smuggled in my giant purse.
To compensate for what I couldn’t provide my daughters, I baked. Most evenings after work and every Saturday: warm apple muffins, or my grandmother’s buttermilk biscuits, or my great-grandmother’s cinnamon rolls laced with caramel. I perfected my maternal grandmother’s pie-crust. I pulled loaves of steaming white bread from my oven, just like Great-Aunt Thelma, and I guarded the bread from my gaggle of girls until it had cooled just enough for me to slice it. I spread the slices with butter and homemade peach jam. This was the best I could do on a chilly Oregon day for the people I most wanted to take care of.
Many years later I moved to this house in the woods to live with my current husband. One night we invited over two local couples for dinner. When I set a loaf of piping hot bread on the table, wrapped in a linen cloth, I felt a shiver of disapproval — embarrassment for me, even — from the women, who had personal trainers and gardeners and spent months each summer in Europe. I hadn’t yet picked up on the latest diet trend: Protein was good now. Carbs were bad, bad, bad. One of these lean, taut women asked if I’d baked the loaf myself. I was about to tell her the story of the 150-year-old starter, as if that would legitimize the offering already starting to sag on the table, when she went on to declare that she would never: “If I baked it, I might eat it.” And I swear her body nearly crumpled with desire as those words left her mouth. Or maybe that’s how much I needed her to envy my bread.
The woman’s disdain nagged at me. My children had grown up and moved away, and my husband’s health dictated a special diet. My doctor, too, urged me to go light on carbs — it was either stop with bread or give up wine, she said. How had the food that comforted me most become my body’s enemy?
I quit baking. I tried not to imagine my great-grandmother scowling at the news. She would not have tolerated a breakfast without soft, fluffy biscuits from her oven. I put her biscuit recipe away. No more blueberry scones or peach cobbler. I produced only an occasional loaf of whole-wheat-flax-oat-honey-yogurt bread, dense and uninviting. Real bread was spoken of in disparaging terms. It made you fat and sluggish and moody and unsightly to your neighbors. Better that I should rip the forty-two pages of baking recipes from my grandmother’s Methodist-church cookbook and eat those.
Then along came the pandemic and a statewide mandate to stay at home. I convinced myself that the governor had handed me a signed permission slip. We were isolated, alone in a new way, my husband’s illness more serious now. Didn’t we deserve the ease and consolation of homemade bread? I washed away the grime on my baking pans, dug into the freezer for a bag of last summer’s huckleberries, and coaxed the sourdough starter back into action. Within days its ferment was a constant tang in the kitchen air.
Sometimes I still couldn’t shake the sense that I did my daughters a disservice by teaching them to equate bread with affection. But then I’d picture my young girls standing around a cast-iron skillet of cornbread, breathing in the scent of it before we cut it into wedges, and I’d let myself off the hook.
How like me to equivocate on the issue of baked goods and ignore the actual parenting failings I don’t so easily cop to, such as my rages and impatience and the simple fact that I was often not available to my daughters when they most needed me. Fewer loaves of banana bread and a little more attention, please. Yet, a few weeks ago, when I couldn’t bear not seeing them any longer, I drove several hundred miles to Portland and back again in one day, to visit with two of my daughters in a backyard at the mandated distance. I watched them tear corner pieces from the still-warm loaves of bread I’d brought, one daughter handing her toddler a morsel that he ground between his teeth. I reveled in this moment, as I had when my girls were little, convinced that any hardness among us was made softer by the loaves, my sins peeled away.
When I was twenty-eight years old, I took a low-paying, part-time job leading a writing group at a senior center. I was miserable in my marriage and had been on the verge of getting myself and my three young daughters free at last when, in an act of startling self-sabotage, I got pregnant. There’s a story behind that: My then husband, also in his twenties, wouldn’t get a vasectomy. (He insisted it would emasculate him.) The Catholic hospital where my third daughter had been born had refused my request for a tubal ligation. My doctor told me I was too young to make such a permanent decision, and he offered me birth-control pills instead. When I called him a year later, suspecting I was pregnant, he said no way. The hard lump in my uterus was a growth, he claimed, and he sent me in for a sonogram. When a technician put a cold paddle on my belly, up on the screen popped a second-trimester fetus floating in the dappled star-space of her mother’s womb.
It was this daughter who, when she was around four years old and we had moved far from her father, walked in on me standing naked in the bathroom one morning. I was trying to figure out how I would get the five of us through another precarious day, how I would pay the bills and keep gas in the car and make ends meet. I tried not to share my worry with my girls, but I knew they picked up on it. “Why does your belly look like bread dough?” my daughter asked, and she pressed her hands into the one part of my body that gives as easily as a feather pillow. She leaned into me, and I could tell what she wanted right then wasn’t an answer to her question but rather some reassurance that everything would be all right. I put my hands on hers and pressed harder, as if to say, I’m right here. This is all the reassurance I can give you.
The weekly class at the senior center was made up of maybe ten women in their seventies. To me they were ancient, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about their old, old stories. Such was the nature of my self-absorption. In a bid to gain their trust, I told them how I baked bread in the tradition of generations of women before me, and I went on to describe the heritage sourdough as well as my new kitchen mixer, which had come with a dough hook, so I could set a timer and let the machine do the tedious work of kneading.
To a one, the women were aghast. Oh, no, one named Alice said. That was not baking. That was not bread worthy to set on a family’s table. She let me know that bread is only bread if you knead it into life yourself. You must pull and fold it with your own hand until you sense its inhales and its sighs, until you and the dough are one.
Another woman told of growing up in Finland and of a particular cold winter day when a cow was slaughtered for meat. The mother in the kitchen stirred a vat of sliced onions in butter, and the girls one at a time rushed into the field with deep metal pans to catch blood gushing from the cow’s slit throat. The blood was poured over the onions, and then that mixture was transferred into their largest mixing bowl, along with flour and salt and homegrown yeast. Now the girls took turns kneading, palpating the ingredients with their chapped hands as if restarting a stopped heart, their shoulders bent with the effort, their mother reminding them that this blood bread would be all they’d have to sustain them in the cold days ahead, while the meat cured. “Beat the old lady out,” the mother called to her daughters. Beat out the cranky lumps until the dough in your hands is elastic, forgiving. Leave nothing behind, not a speck of flour nor smear of blood in the shiny bottom of the bowl.
Alice listened to the story, and then she turned to look at me: See? See what you must give to the bread if you expect it to give back to you? She was stout and firm and had no children, having never married. I liked her best, probably because she was the hardest for me to win over. I could see she wondered, as I did, what qualified me for this job. I was inexperienced as a teacher, as a writer, as a woman, and she, more than the rest of them, could tell I had room in my body for only my own tale of woe.
I wonder if I have finally learned, these many years later, to make room in my body for stories other than my own.
I wonder if I might at least release my long-held claim that I am more noble than my mother because I bake bread with the seeds of our ancestors, while she did not.
My four daughters are now well into their adult lives. Two have children of their own. Each has a jar of the family sourdough starter in her refrigerator, which is fed and fed again, brought out to ferment and bubble, and blended into loaves and confections beyond my own limited repertoire. My daughters also regularly march in the streets, across bridges and into parks, through clouds of pepper spray and around police barriers. They are part of a generation determined to bring about change that will ring like a cathedral bell through the rest of our time on earth.
When they were still young, I tried to convince my kids of Alice’s mandate: that if our bread was to be authentic, we had to knead it ourselves. They gave it a go, but kneading wasn’t for them. What they lined up for on baking day was the chance to punch down the dough that expanded like a soft balloon from the bowl. The one who got there first slammed a fist into the ball to break its skin, release its air. The other sisters came in behind, one after another, punching and punching until the dough was flat against the curve of metal. Tight fists, red faces. Everyone getting her punches in. I was a single mother, broke, alone, and afraid. Yet I’d give just about anything to return to a long-ago Saturday with my daughters. I miss the life that happened in that kitchen, cobbled together though it was. What I remember is that we made bread and broke bread and got each other through this ragged day and into the next one.
Those daughters are mighty women now. They know who they are and the stock they come from. They know the country they want to live in.
Each of us takes a jar of starter from the back of the refrigerator. We feed it with flour and water. We wait for it to take in the yeasty air of our kitchens. We watch it grow.
Debra Gwartney’s “Beat the Old Lady Out” [April 2021] brought me back to the mornings when the smell of my Swedish grandmother’s cinnamon rolls, slathered in buttery caramel, would wake me up. Nine of us kids gobbled them up before they cooled — “starving for something,” as Gwartney says, that we “couldn’t name.”
I sent the essay to my two children, who are in graduate school. I haven’t hugged them since before the pandemic, when I took for granted their casual visits, holidays, and just-passing-through drop-ins. Like Gwartney, I’m sure I often substituted banana bread or Grandma’s rolls for what they really wanted: a listening ear, quality time, mothering.
A year into the pandemic there’s nothing new to say about the things we’re not doing, the places we’re not going, the people we’re not seeing. Instead my son and daughter share recipes with me. We savor stories about a golden loaf of sourdough grown from a starter shared among my son’s biochemistry pod, or the chocolate babka my daughter made to cheer a friend who stumbled in her preliminary exams. Gwartney’s essay reminds me that, until we can be together in person, bread and stories will fill our hearts.
While munching on a piece of tasteless, gluten-free bread, I read Debra Gwartney’s essay “Beat the Old Lady Out” with great delight. It reminded me of my mother’s fluffy waffles, served to us on Sunday mornings, always made with Bisquick. Although she never baked bread, her buttery piecrusts, moist pumpkin bread baked in coffee cans, and lemon meringue pie were all made from scratch. I salivate just thinking about them.
When I tried to bake bread, it always emerged coarse and heavy. I was too weak to give the dough the proper punch, and my patience was too thin. I resorted to the once-popular bread-making machine, but the results were never the same. The cylindrical shape and puffy top reminded me of a volcano about to explode.
On rare occasions I am lucky enough to visit someone who has just pulled a fragrant loaf out of the oven. Like Gwartney, I would never refuse a slice slathered with butter and jam — a little taste of heaven.
As the pandemic swept across the country, I was first alarmed, then panicked, at the dearth of bread on grocery-store shelves. Like Debra Gwartney [“Beat the Old Lady Out,” April 2021] I decided to bake my own, only to find, as she did, that yeast had been bought up as quickly as bread. Our sourdough starter came to the rescue: a decades-old descendent of my Hungarian grandfather’s starter, which he brought with him from the gold fields of Alaska. Sourdough was such a staple there that old-time prospectors were called “Sourdoughs.”
Sourdough seems to be a patriarchal passion in our family. While it is not shared by my two sisters, all three of my brothers keep a starter bubbling away at the ready, each a scion of Grandpa’s Alaskan original.
Every other Sunday is sourdough-pancake day at our house. I retrieve the starter from the fridge on Saturday afternoon, feed it with flour and water, and then let the yeasts work their magic overnight. Our Sunday breakfasts, less the fresh-caught trout, are much the same as what Gwartney’s grandmother served. In spite of decades of practice, however, I have yet to duplicate Grandpa’s pancakes.