Resilience and Bread
Bread is a right of passage. From my earliest years, it has taught me self-reliance and brought me comfort. I learned this all from a straightforward, old-fashioned cookbook with recipes from times of hardship. As a result, it’s hard for me not to be sentimental or territorial when bread-making has become popular, just as if bread were a beloved, underground band that suddenly became popular. But I forgive those getting on the bandwagon and here is why.
Recipes are innately an act of sharing. We even have the idiom “breaking bread” to describe sharing a meal with others. The recent bread-making explosion on social media about what was often considered a mundane act of survival is just a new extension of the long-winded narratives that accompany recipes in many food blogs. Yet, we are eating it up.
The internet has allowed a proliferation of sharing that reflects how connected we can be with food and diarizes how our connection with food is evolving. The surging interest in making bread will also be historicized as part of our food evolution if enough people make an authentic connection to the process.
Yet I must admit people making “pandemic bread” and sharing it online first came off to me as posing. My family made bread a few times a week growing up because flour and yeast were the only things we could afford. We baked so much bread to fill our food security gap that my body does not tolerate bread well these days. But like many others who baked bread to get by from all there was left in the cupboard, making bread nourishes and provides us with emotional resilience.
But it’s a privilege to have flour, sugar, yeast and salt, not entertainment.
Shelves are emptied of yeast and flour to possibly be spoiled in first attempts and it almost feels like an insult to the food insecure and to serious bakers. It reminds me of bread machines in the ’90s, which felt like a threat to the purpose of making bread. They took away tactility, sensuality, self-sufficiency and even aggression in the act of making it (I loved to punch the dough down after the first rise).
My family’s foolproof bread recipe was from a utilitarian, spiral-bound product of a delegate conference of the Canadian Mennonite community in Steinbach, Manitoba in 1961. The ruddy, orange cover of the original printing had long fallen off by the time I left for college. The bread recipes are especially dense and give you a feeling of fullness when you need it most.
The book resulted from a spontaneous collaboration of Mennonite women’s groups sharing popular recipes from large, communal meals. Other than my father being a German immigrant and my Quebec-born mother having worked in a German restaurant, we have no connection to the community. But I learned the no-nonsense approach to baking from the Treasury and it opened up my world to learning more about an immigrant community of Mennonites with fascinating histories and recipes now fused to my memories.
Our family cookbook brings up so many moments — from when I learned to bake bread at 6 and realized the power of self-sufficiency, to the day I called up my dad for the bread recipe from my first apartment, to now showing my 4-year-old the basics of bread making. I don’t know who had the book last and my dad passed away a few years ago.
When I could not find my hand-written copy from that phone call to my Dad from my first apartment, I surprised myself when I began crying. I was mourning two losses.
I tracked down the original printer (earlier printings like the one my family had now cost up to $200). When it arrived, I flipped through looking for the bread recipe and immediately summoned the exact page by rote. The book was new and free from flour grit, yet my body had interacted with this arrangement of pages before. Just as it had with countless heaps of dough and bowls of warm, watery yeast.
Bread is impressed on our memories and our physical selves.
But this is only my personal connection to a bread recipe in an old cookbook. The recipes in the Treasury were written by a large network akin to recipe sharing on the internet these days. A growing network of food stories.
The new wave of bread makers may think they are experimenting, but they are discovering an act of healing because baking brings us to memories of satiety and completeness. We crave this feeling and that’s why we will sometimes read a tedious blog or like a friend’s bread-making post to get the same feeling again. When we read recipes and food stories, we are privy to nuance that is exclusive to that baking experience and how generations have cooked together. If we are lucky to have participated in the kitchen growing up, we are richer for it.
One of my friends recently tutored me over video and text on making sourdough for the first time and I feel we bonded in a way that we never had before. Even from a distance, we created a shared experience and a cherished memory.
I hope for those who are trying bread-making for the first time tap into the primal connection. I know my early experience baking and cooking has built a relationship to food for me that has allowed me to have had a healthy, alternative diet for my entire adult life and has helped me heal myself from an eating disorder. Psychologists liken baking to a mode of self care and basic needs fulfillment in Maslow’s hierarchy and it makes so much sense to me that my family survived hard times by filling our bellies with warm carbs. So while I don’t have the patience for a lot of blogs that curate recipe narratives and overzealous posts from new bakers, I better appreciate the genuine attempt to reach for a sense of completeness and healing by sharing.
My bygone bread recipe was borne out of austerity but brought healing and fortification. The new interest in bread-making may be (re)connecting people to a nourishment they never knew they could cultivate. Recipes aren’t just histories but the byproduct of our toil and joy.