A little bread, a little freedom
My great-grandmother made a Swedish rye bread that apparently was the most delicious thing you ever tasted. The family would fight over who would have the first slice as it came warm out of the oven. Slathered with melted butter and a bit of honey, or grilled with a thick slice of ham and a piece of Wisconsin cheddar, it was a small piece of heaven. Made with love and care, it was a small piece of home and family. There was no recipe, she made it from memory, a measure of flour, a dash of yeast, a pinch of caraway seeds, knead and let rise for the time it takes for the birds to stop singing in the morning. A piece of high magic from the past, her mother taught it to her, her mother before that, for an uncounted number of generations back to old Sweden.
I don’t know how to make my great-grandmother’s rye bread. At some point over the last fifty years, the secret was lost. My grandmother gradually stopped making it, my mother only made it a few times with her. We forgot, let it slip away. We never picked up the trick, the incantation necessary to conjure it into existence. We gradually started doing what pretty much everyone in America now takes as a given in their lives – picking up a loaf of bread at their local supermarket. And a little piece of something precious was lost.
But I was fortunate. I may not have picked up the high magic of my great-grandmother’s rye. But my mother did teach me the simple hedge cantrip of making a loaf of french bread. A small little window into a fairy world of yeast and flour, rising and proofing. A glimpse of the straight road through a bent world. I loved making bread. Kneading a ball of flour and water into something delicious is a true joy. Watching living yeast and a little time transform a rough ball of dough into a golden loaf. In a dull world, there is still a tiny bit of magic.
However, at some point, I stopped baking bread. At some point, schools and careers and the demands of a modern life made me put it down, forget about the time spent wandering down fairy paths. My wife and I developed a habit of picking up a loaf of bread from whole foods nearly every day. Expensive, but we could afford it working our crazy, demanding jobs. I stopped doing something I love to devote a few more hours of my life to my employer.
But the actual money is only a small component of the problem. The real issue is that no one knows how to do anything anymore. Baking bread is just one example. We have specialized so much, narrowing and narrowing our skills and abilities. Outsourcing everything from the maintenance of our cars, to the care for our gardens, to the building of our walls, to the raising of our children. We exchange years of our life for the removal of pieces of ability, pieces of knowledge from our lives. Tiny pieces of magic stripped away one day at a time. As a result, we’re trapped. If you don’t know how to do anything for yourself other than be a highly specialized corporate lawyer or be a tech company strategy guy you have no options. You will never escape the golden chains that bind you in this world. Never find your way back into that world of freedom, that world of magic that is possible if you look for it.
So I’ve started making bread again. A few months ago I baked my first loaf in years. Put my hands back into flour and yeast and created a little magic out of nothing. Getting back to something you love is one small step in reclaiming your life, but it’s one of the most important ones you can take. My family is happier for it – it’s pretty damn good bread. I’m happier for it, and I have a chance to pass a little bit of magic onto my daughter. I might even try my hand at some rye one of these days.
Beautiful post and great reminder. Thank you!
Excellent post… I grew up in a very blue collar family and was taught to do most things myself. Over the years it amazing how many new skill sets you pick up. Now that I work in the white collar tech sector its eye opening to see how many of my very intelligent colleagues only exude knowledge in a specialized area and lack the knowledge, confidence, desire to do anything non-work related themselves.
Agree. It’s pretty shocking how little everyone can do for themselves. But a big piece of it is just TIME. No one makes time to do anything outside of their jobs and so skills atrophy.
Great post. Where’s your bread recipe? I’d love to try it!
6 Cups of flour
2 Tbs Active Dry Yeast
2 Cups warm water
1/2 tsp salt
1-2 Tbs Dried Basil
1-2 Tbs Dried Oregano
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
2 Tbs Olive Oil
1 egg separated
Mix 2 cups of flour in with the salt, yeast, and spices, and olive oil. Add the water. Mix. Gradually add the remaining flour. Turn out and knead for about 10 min. Let it rise once in a greases bowl until about double. You can freeze at this point if you want. Shape into loaves, let rise again. Brush with egg white and bake at 350 for about 20 min, brush with egg white again and bake for another 20 min. You can skip the egg white brushing an just bake for 40 min- main effect is just making it pretty.
I wonder how long packaged yeast has been in production. Your family recipe probably originated with a sourdough starter and not packaged yeast. Authentic recipes make use of the yeast in the air right around you, and is grown and maintained by the baker. Anyone older than your grandmother likely had to bake that way, because pancaked, dehydrated yeast, activated by warm water, is a construct of the last 100 years. Bread existed for thousands of years prior….
It was a sourdough starter. Makes it a little bit harder, but I’d still like to give it a shot at some point!
LOVED this post ! I am hispanic so our bread is tortillas. My family growing up had these at every meal and they were made fresh daily. All of us girls had to learn and I have since passed it on to my Daughters… And sadly you are indeed correct we buy everything now. Everything instant or pop it into the microwave. Canned, frozen you name it. People look at my family like we are crazy. We are the few who still make most by hand. I rarely buy canned anything. It tastes so much better when you make it yourself !
Great post! Love it 🙂
It’s great that you like to make bread, but you needn’t bemoan specialization in telling your story.
Specialization allows society to be more productive so everyone can live better. You wouldn’t want me running your tech company or litigating your case, and I wouldn’t want you caring for my heart attack.