When I make bread, I feel like a minor goddess in whose hands the cold formless mixture, the glob of dough composed of flour, yeast, water, salt, and a bit of honey, resist my pressure and is then kneaded into life. I leave it alone for an hour or longer to let it grow. When it doubles its size, I take it in hand again and give it form. Baked its transformation complete, yielding a golden crust, bracing aroma, exciting my appetite.
Yeast, a leavening agent, makes the bread rise and live. Food scholars write that the discovery of yeast was a probably an accident. Someone, perhaps someone from the Nile Valley, left unleavened dough in the sun for an extended time during which wild yeast floating in the air was absorbed in to the doughy flour mixture. This caused it to rise produce a mild sour dough bread.
Wild yeast is unpredictable. Bread dough leavened this way may rise improperly or may have an undesirable flavor. Consequently, modern bakeries use a commercially cultivated yeast.
I do like biscuits. Not the sailor’s hardtack, or the British cookie/cracker confection, but the bread of the American South, the biscuits my slave ancestors were sometimes allowed on Sundays.
I think I was seven when Daddy brought home a jar of Alaga syrup. The syrup was made in
Alabama where Daddy’s family had lived. He had discovered the syrup of his childhood had
also migrated to Detroit on the shelf of a black-owned neighborhood store. When he bought that jar our Sunday midday meals changed. We ate at Grandma’s after church. The meal nearly always was fried chicken, rice and gravy with biscuits or sometimes grits, eggs, bacon, and biscuits. Instead of eating all the biscuits with the gravy, he saved a couple and poured the syrup in a saucer and sopped the biscuits in the syrup. We—my brother and I—imitated him. Like him, we split the biscuits in half, buttered each side, and dabbed the biscuit in our plate covered with syrup. The syrup soaked in the biscuit’s soft layers crumbled in my mouth sweet and tangy flavors.
When we moved into our own house and Mama didn’t make the big Sunday afternoon meals. I could say she began taking leave in style as well as distance. She was curious. In her kitchen she could adapt ways with new products like a pressure cooker in the food preservation preparation process on her electric stove. She also revised the ingredients for the biscuits increasing the amount of baking powder and using Crisco, instead of lard, for the shortening.
In the early days in our new home, she would let me watch her. I had to be quiet and not ask questions, she’d let me stay in the kitchen and watch her make the biscuits. She stored her flour
in a repurposed five pound “New Era” potato chip can scooping the flour out with a tea cup. Sifting the flour on to wax paper, she let the flour flow into pyramid peaks mixed the baking powders, salt, and a tiny bit of baking soda in the flowing flour. She poured these dry ingredients into a bowl, and cleared the center making a well to receive Crisco and buttermilk. With her fingers, she slowly worked the wet and dry together, gradually, bringing the flour mixture back into the center with the crisco. Whirling and squishing the whiteness through her brown fingers, slowly, turning into liveness, a soft glob of dough. She takes it in hand and shapes it into a mound to roll out and cut into biscuit shapes.
The biscuits came from the oven with a golden crust and the inside like, a soft cloud, delicate and light. As we sopped the biscuits they blossomed in our mouth, a rich tangy flavor coated in the dark sweet Alaga syrup.
I spent my early life in my mother’s house reading books and studying and did not learn how to cook and never went to the grocery store for food.But after I married with the help of friends and cookbooks I learned. It was around this time that the idea of “natural foods” spread among my husband’s friends. Home made cooking was a central tenant of this food. I became a cook using Diet for a Small Planet and the cookbooks of authors like Adele Davis as my guides (yes, it was the ’70’s) I cooked with cheap grains—millet, lots of whole grain wheat flour, soybeans, brown
rice, sesame seeds. We found substitutes for shortening with peanut and olive oils. Sugar was replaced by honey and molasses. Luckily we found farmers markets and bulk food cooperatives to supply these products and great fresh vegetables.
Sometimes we abandoned natural diet orthodoxy for an old fashioned Southern meal. A green vegetable cooked for hours with pork—ham, ham hock or bacon to enhance smoky flavor— and cornbread.
Working with these basic foods without air conditioning in Washington DC’s steamy hot summers, I sometimes imagined myself as a top-less woman stirring a large caldron pot; a woman sitting on her knees before a stone rubbing grain free from its stalk; a woman leaning over a table stretching and folding a browny colored dough making bread.
It was in the first years of my marriage that I became a bread maker (before electric bread makers). I Wanted to please my husband who spoke lovingly about the bread his mother baked And also to show-off my cooking confidence. I hunted cookbooks for simple bread recipes.
Making bread has a calming effect, I flow into a “nowness” a meditative space, as my hands move my body compliments the kneading rhythm. In these moments, I collect my many me’s, and drift like particles I change, with the sensual wonders of life.