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When I was a child my mom baked bread. I remember her jar of sourdough starter and the smell throughout the house. This is a jar of the unbaked dough that is used in each subsequent batch. When your dough is ready to be baked you pull a pinch of it and save it in a jar full of yeasty water to be used next time; apparently sourdough can’t be made without a little matured yeast. Women share it with their daughters, friends or neighbors so that they can start baking bread too. Some women claim they have dough starter that can be traced through a few generations. Each batch of bread starting from another, a line of bread nourishing a family as it grows. It’s sort of symbolic of womanhood and motherhood, isn’t it?

For a while we lived in a town called Winston-Salem, famous for tobacco manufacturing. But to me it was famous because of Old Salem, a living history section of town. I had a friend in 4H whose older sister got to dress up like an 18th century Mennonite girl and volunteer there. I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that she had to hand sew her authentic costume and there was a pump in the middle of the square, used by tourist and townspeople alike. And then there was the bread. If you walked down the road that the bakery was on you could smell it down the street, a smell of yeasty warm that made you lift your nose until you balanced on your toes, following that scent wafting on the air. Inside the bakery was a man dressed in white, floury handprints blending in with his apron. His forearms were thick and his face shown with sweat. Those loaves of bread were baked in a brick oven. The room was always hot.

When we bought bread from them we also bought gingersnap cookies, cut into shapes like suns or stars. The cookies were so thin and crisp you could give yourself a paper cut on the tongue if you weren’t careful. I used to break off a little bit at a time and hold it on my tongue, letting the ginger tingle there and feeling the cookie melt away slowly. I can still remember standing in the kitchen of our house with that first cookie lying in my mouth.

Bread that I buy at the stores today, or even at the Great Harvest, seems paltry in comparison to that original bread. It’s like having a dream and trying to hold onto that feeling after waking when I’m faced with the long sliced loaves at the Shoppers’. That intense, beautiful feeling you had once is gone, and you can try to recreate it but it will always ring false and tinny in your ear. That is the problem with excellent food—it creates an afterimage that can never be recreated as perfectly again. But we continue to try, continue to search for that perfect madeleine or yeasty bread of our youth.

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