“some ancient ceremony”



“Perhaps this war will make it simpler for us to go back to some of the old ways we knew before we came over to this land and made the Big Money. Perhaps, even, we will remember how to make good bread again. It does not cost much. It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with peace, and the house filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

— M.F.K. Fisher, from How to Cook a Wolf

“Every living thing will have its share…”

today's bread

I made bread today because my children are coming and home means many things and bread is certainly one of them. My mother made bread all the years of my childhood, 10 or 12 loaves a week, and all the years my children lived here, I made most of our family’s bread. As many times as I make the dough, knead it, shape it, bake it, I am always moved by that most sacred transformation of wheat and water (and a little sourdough starter) to loaves to nourish us and sustain us. Tonight we’ll make a meal of it, with cheese and smoked salmon, some chicken liver mousse, olives (which you can see behind the loaves), wine of course, and a platter of garden tomatoes, dressed with olive oil and basil.

…life itself
will have the shape of bread,
deep and simple,
immeasurable and pure.
Every living thing
will have its share
of soil and life,
and the bread we eat each morning,
everyone’s daily bread,
will be hallowed
and sacred…

–Pablo Neruda

I wish it was true that every living thing could have its share. One of the tragedies our species hasn’t been able to take seriously enough to solve — the plenty, the abundance (in my own kitchen), and the scarcity in other places. You’d think a civilization that took such things as space travel and automated cars seriously could also work out how to feed the hungry among us.

Our daily bread 2

I am thinking that bread must have been made in the house in Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born in 1881. This wasn’t my mother’s mother – I have no idea who my mother’s mother was; or, wait, I have an idea, but I will pursue that a little later on – but my father’s: Anna Klusova, daughter of Adam Klus and Eva Szkanderova. There are other names, a long line of them running across paper like the blue thread of the Lomna River I see on the map in front of me. Her house, just near the river, a small bridge crossing it by the road, and then a path, deep with snow when I visited in late February of 2012. I could see her house from the cleared yard of the house directly in front of hers but I couldn’t cross the white field to peer in the windows where she must have looked out to see what was going on in the world of sheep and spruce trees.

Deer pausing to drink from the river, or maybe a fugitive wolf, or a goshawk swooping down to take up a shrew in its talons. I know these animals exist today in the Mionsi  forest above the house and in those years their numbers must have been considerable. In fairy tales, the young girl walking home alone was often shadowed by a wolf. The church where my grandmother worshipped and was married from is perhaps a mile from her house. I imagine her walking home from Mass with her scarf pulled up over her face against the wind and hearing wolves in the mountains, knowing they would enter her sleep in the bed she surely shared with a sister or two. Or noting the stamp of lynx paws in the snow as they led over the bridge and up into the trees.

So the windows where she looked out: I’ve seen them. And there’s a chimney, so they had fire, and of course they would have eaten bread. My father didn’t cook much but he did make pancakes and he always put buckwheat flour in them. Buckwheat figures in some of the dishes of the Beskydy Mountains so perhaps my grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather: how intimate a term to use for someone I never met, will never know, and yet whose house I yearn for at this great distance: the Sunshine Coast to Horni Lomna; something in excess of 8000 kilometres), described in my grandmother’s certificate of birth and baptism as a farmer, well, perhaps he grew buckwheat on that slope of hill behind the house. There were fruit trees under a burden of snow. Plums? Apples? In summer photographs, the valley of the Lomna River is verdant and lush. I imagine the taste of apples grown there, fed by those waters.

Can a relationship be recreated with such small ingredients? With the possibility of buckwheat, the dream of wolves? Only think of bread – pulverized wheat berries, water, yeast. Salt had to be brought in to the area for sheep and people; they traded plum jam, slivovitz, woollen goods, and cheese. In that small house, I imagine the bowl of dough rising by the hearth, curds in a wooden trough, and jars of plums gleaming on a shelf.

Our daily bread

Every week she made bread. I remember the lard melting in a big saucepan of milk, then cooling. She mixed the dough in a huge aluminum pan, battered, with a hole on one edge for hanging it on a hook. It was never hung up in our place but sat on a shelf until required again. (It was also used for mixing the turkey stuffing at Christmas.) I don’t think I’m wrong in remembering that she made 12 or more loaves at a time. Mixed by hand, kneaded by hand. I liked returning home to the smell of fresh bread and sometimes there were even cinnamon buns, sticky with raisins and brown sugar. I would have liked slices of warm bread with lots of butter, but she was too thrifty and careful to allow the bread to be used for anything other than daily sandwiches or weekend toast. We didn’t have toast on weekday mornings but woke, instead, to porridge in the melmac bowls, a scant spoonful of brown sugar on top, and milk cooling the grey mush. I always said I hated it but in fact it wasn’t the taste I hated – there was something comforting about a bowl of porridge – but that we weren’t allowed to refuse it. And that she wouldn’t allow suggestions – flavour the oats with cinnamon, maybe, or add some raisins or walnuts? No. She was queen of the kitchen and so sensitive to anything resembling criticism that a suggestion produced anger. And tears.

But the bread, I see this now, was such an accomplishment. I make two loaves a week, enough for my husband’s morning toast, and to accompany the occasional meal of omelette or soup. When my children come home for a holiday, I make it more often – one son has been known to eat most of a loaf warm from the oven, with butter and cheddar cheese. And I use my Kitchenaid to mix the dough, removing it at the end to give it a few nostalgic turns with my hands. I didn’t always use the Kitchenaid (I’ve only had it for five or six years) and know something of the work of kneading larger quantities of dough but I never made 12 loaves at a time. But the point (or one of them) is, it’s no effort at all to make bread this way.

Once, when I was perhaps 11, a school friend invited me to spend a weekend boat camping with her and her parents. This was such luxury! We would head out from Sidney where they kept their cabin cruiser and meander up to Cowichan Bay and environs. My friend promised those tiny doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and lots of soda pop, things we seldom had at home. We moored off Tent Island, I remember, in a marine park, and my friend’s parents drank cocktails on deck. This seemed the height of sophistication to me, those drinks in tall plastic glasses jaunty with nautical flags, maraschino cherries impaled on toothpicks with cellophane streamers on the tips. Meanwhile we went ashore in a dinghy, exploring the island in sunshine. My mother sent a loaf of her bread and a jar of concord grape jelly, gifts I gave my hostess with some embarrassment. Who would want homemade bread, I thought. It turned out this family did. They went into rhapsodies over breakfast, buttering slices of my mother’s bread and spooning on jelly. Did I tell her how they’d loved her bread? Probably not, another small pleasure I kept from her.

I never heard her complain about the work of making bread. She didn’t often complain about any of the work associated with our household of 6. She was cheerful about laundry, for instance, even in the days when she had a wringer washer and no drier – and even when she did have a drier, she seldom used it, begrudging (her word) the expense. Instead she hung everything on outdoor clothes lines or else on twine strung across the basement. She ironed everything imaginable – pillow cases, shirts, our jeans, tea towels – and even the unimaginable: my father’s boxer shorts. She’d set up the ironing board in front of the television and watch her favourite shows while spraying clean cotton with water and running her hot iron across each item. Lawrence Welk, Jackie Gleason, Don Messer’s Jubilee or anything else with a maritime flavour to remind her of Nova Scotia where she was born.

I laughed at her, mocked her choice of programs, because that wasn’t what I wanted – a mother soft-eyed, even teary, as she watched Catherine McKinnon sing sad songs of the old country or Lawrence Welk manfully guide the latest champagne lady around the floor, the June Taylor Dancers grinning as they twirled in crinolines or bolo ties.

But what did I want of her? I couldn’t have known then, obviously, but I rebuke my younger self for treating her so casually – did I ever say, I think it’s amazing that you make bread? Or did I thank her for ironing my jeans with such care? I rebuke my older self for not taking her aside and hugging her with gratitude. It would have delighted her but I never did.

Every week she made bread.