With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I grew up in the heart of Chicago’s old Italian neighborhood. In the fall Our Lady of Pompeii Church held a carnival where I ate Italian beef sandwiches made with bread so crusty it took several bites to get through. At De Leo’s Bakery I bought, for a nickel, a slice of freshly baked Italian bread dipped in gravy made in the back room. At home I begged for the crustiest part of the loaf, the end.
In 1951, when I was eleven, we moved to a neighborhood where no one ate like we did. For lunch I brought a brown paper bag holding a sandwich made with sardines, fried green peppers, or tuna steeped in olive oil from Genoa. As I walked the six blocks to my new school, I prayed to Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, to protect me.
He didn’t seem to hear. By the time I arrived at school, my lunch bag had often turned shiny and dark, the oily dampness about to rip it apart. I envied my classmates, whose lunch bags looked dry and crisp, as if their mothers had ironed them. Their sandwiches, made with white bread, never leaked or smelled.
It didn’t take long for the Mafia taunts to begin. My mother said my classmates should be so lucky; the neighborhood would be safer if we were mobsters. But I was interested in fitting in. If I ate like them, maybe I could stop having to explain that my father didn’t kill people; he sold wallpaper for a living.
I just wanted us to eat like everyone else.
“Watch this!” my father said one day as my sisters and I sat around the kitchen table.
He held up a slice of white bread and peeled off the crust as if it were a strip of brown tape. He rubbed the perfectly shaped white square between his hands, and when he opened them, the bread was gone. In its place was a putty-colored ball. He threw this to the floor, where it hit the linoleum with a loud splat. “That’s what American bread does to your stomach!” he shouted.
My sisters and I made gagging noises. My father looked pleased.
“Now watch this!” he said, holding up a slice of Italian bread. He pulled at the crust. “See? It’s not coming off like the other one.” He finally tore it away, leaving an uneven chunk of bread, which he rubbed between his hands. This time, when he opened them, it still looked like bread — off-white, porous, good enough to dip in oil.
“It springs back!” he yelled. “This is bread!”
Today, when I walk past a loaf of “American bread” in the supermarket, I see only a small, putty-colored ball in its place.
At the age of seven I was introduced to the sacrament of Holy Communion. I still treasure the photo of me from that day: a sweet, innocent girl in a white dress, holding her white prayer book. Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, amid ritual and mystery (the Mass was still said in Latin then), I would fantasize that the bread the priest placed on my tongue was actually the body of Christ.
Now, as a Buddhist, I embrace the view that nothing can exist without everything else: The tea I drink comes from the rain, which comes from the clouds, which come from the vapor in the air, and so on. The “Anna” that I call myself does not have a separate self, independent of everything else. My mother and father are in me, and their parents are also in me, and all my ancestors are in me: their physicality, their emotions, their stories, their dreams.
Based on my current beliefs, I realize that of course the bread at Communion was the body of Christ. Christ is a piece of bread as much as I am a river. Every cell in the body holds all aspects of the cosmos. Nothing exists on its own.
As a Buddhist, I feel more Catholic than ever.
Asheville, North Carolina
As family lore goes, my first words were pan con mantequilla — “bread and butter.” In my hometown of Miami, I loved going to eat at Versailles, where baskets of hot, buttery Cuban bread arrived as soon as you sat down.
My father, a Frenchman, turned his nose up at the fat loaves of Cuban bread for sale at every grocery store and bakery. His idea of a decent loaf was a perfectly croustillant (crusty and chewy) French baguette, not something pillowy and soft. A baguette was thin and elegant, whereas Cuban bread was bloated with air and quick to go stale. He carried this attitude into his ideas about Cuban people, too, often butting heads with my mother’s chatty family.
After college I befriended a Mexican baker, Espiri, who made artisanal sourdough in a wood-fired oven. I became his assistant and spent two nights a week by his side, learning how to shape loaves and score dough. My favorite task was feeding la madre, the sourdough starter whose pungent smell I can’t begin to describe. I was amazed by how Espiri knew exactly how much a ball of dough weighed before throwing it on the scale, the speed at which he was able to form perfect boules or batards. We never made baguettes.
I was in love with that tiny room at the back of the bakery: the smell of dough rising from the ashes, the thin film of flour that covered everything. But for Espiri that room was like a prison cell, keeping him from his family back home in Mexico. Some nights, while we waited for the dough to rise, we’d call them on Skype. I met the wife and kids he hadn’t hugged in seven years. His youngest daughter, Andrea, had a degenerative disease and used a wheelchair, but she was always smiling, playing her plastic flute for us. Baking for me was pure pleasure, but for Espiri it was a paycheck that he could send to his family to cover Andrea’s medical expenses.
Eventually I moved on from the bakery. Espiri didn’t. I visited him from time to time, finding him tired after long nights of baking. Finally I heard he had returned to Mexico. I was happy for him, and when I visited Mexico a few years ago, he invited me to share Easter breakfast with his family. There was a lot of food, and a lot of family, but Andrea was missing. I was saddened to learn she had died soon after Espiri returned home.
“And bread?” I asked Espiri. “Are you still baking?”
He shook his head somberly. “I’ll never bake again.”
When I was twenty-four, I worked on a farm outside the small town of Covelo, surrounded by the Coast Range of Northern California. My employers grew vegetables, raised some livestock, and did all the tilling with draft horses.
There was an outdoor clay oven for baking bread, and I was told it had been built the year before by a young woman who had worked there. She had made it from a deposit of blue clay exposed by a mudslide on the road into town. The frame to support the clay was woven from saplings, which were then burnt out in the first firing. I was intrigued by the oven and the story of the woman who’d built it, but when I tasted, from the freezer, the dense, sour bread she had made, I thought, I can do better than that.
I filled the oven with firewood and set it alight. As it burned, I mixed the dough and let it rise. When the fire burned down, I cleaned out the ashes and loaded the oven with my risen loaves.
There were some things I didn’t know about using such an oven. For instance, you need to wait an hour or so after the fire burns down to let the heat even out before loading the bread. When I opened the door twenty minutes later, I found blackened bread, the middle still completely raw.
That year I, too, was raw — and looking to do something meaningful with my life. I shoveled manure on frosty March mornings, dove among boulders in the sparkling water of the Eel River in July, and kissed more women that summer (three) than I had in my entire life.
The oven builder came to visit several times over the year. We got to know each other, and by the time the orchard apples were ripe in October, I told her I was falling in love. Seven months later she was pregnant, and two months after that, we were living in an old farmhouse just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in southwest Virginia. Looking for a way to pay our rent, we built a brick oven outside the kitchen, finishing it just days before our son was born.
At first we sold bread to friends and neighbors, but we slowly expanded, and our business thrived. Two years later, expecting our second child, we built a larger oven in a restaurant that a friend was opening. We used that oven for another couple of years.
We completed our third, even larger, oven in a bakery attached to our new house. My wife went into labor as I baked downstairs. My brother-in-law did his best to manage the baking as I took a break for the birth. After our third child had arrived, I went back to finish the bread.
We moved to Pennsylvania, where there was a fourth oven, a fourth child. After that, I got a vasectomy. I guess I’d had enough of building ovens.
In the twenty-four years since I told the oven builder I was falling in love, she is the only woman I have kissed.
During college I spent summers waiting tables at a chain restaurant in my hometown. I chose it because the place had a reputation for bad service, which meant low expectations. On my first day I dropped an entire tray of drinks, including milkshakes, on a customer’s head.
In the kitchen the irate manager screamed expletives that could be heard in the dining room. The floor was perpetually sticky, and so were the menus. Families treated the restaurant like a playground, and children full of ice cream and soda ran wild. Tips were bad, but overall the pay was better than I’d find elsewhere.
At the time the country had fallen deep into the Atkins-diet craze: low-carb everything. Before-and-after photos of Atkins dieters showed us our bright, skinny futures — if we could just reject evil bread and pasta.
The restaurant adapted, offering high-calorie sandwiches without the bread, which were wildly popular. Customers regularly ordered double bacon cheeseburgers slathered in mayonnaise and dripping with cheese — but hold the roll.
They called it healthy. I called it nonsense.
I gave up meat ten years ago with no problem, but bread? Never. Crescent rolls, brioche buns, challah — these things make life worth living.
Cherry Hill, New Jersey
It was October 1956. Sides of buildings were blown out, trains and stores had ceased to operate, schools and factories were closed, and the streets of Budapest, Hungary, echoed with the sound of marching soldiers. The Soviets had been driven out in a sudden uprising, and shocked, hungry citizens crawled from shelters and darkened apartments to line up for bread. I was twelve years old.
Hundreds waited in lines that snaked around blocks. There were whispers of despair and rage, along with gratitude to the bakers who were working around the clock to feed the city’s population. Family members took turns waiting: teenagers alternated with parents, neighbors stood in for neighbors, the young assisted the old. When you reached the front, your reward was a big, crusty loaf of fresh bread — one for each person.
I remember squeezing that warm loaf and rushing home with pride. It was still steaming when you tore it apart. The smell alone could fill your growling stomach. We thought we had beaten the Soviet regime, but on November 4 their tanks rolled in, airplanes and rockets pierced the silence, and my family fled. We arrived in New York City by Christmas.
We now have plenty of bread, but it never tastes as good as that warm loaf during the revolution.
New York, New York
I am seventeen and enchanted with my future husband’s mother, who bakes fresh bread in her galley kitchen. A mother of twelve, she’s a bread- and baby-making legend.
In my mid-twenties I take my own foray into baking with my husband’s best friend’s wife. We let the dough rise on a sunny windowsill while we gossip, pleased with ourselves and our quaint domesticity. We make rye and pumpernickel, Italian and quick loaves. We deliver them to friends who recently had babies and to our still-partying single friends who are nursing hangovers.
I revisit bread making as a stay-at-home mother, making whole-grain loaves for my toddler. Though not very good, the dull-brown loaves are healthy, and I bake them each week, never deviating from the recipe. It feels right to have routines even if they are lonely ones. My husband eats it without comment. It isn’t special to him; he had a mom who made bread. For twelve! In a tiny kitchen! I am the mother of only one — as my mother-in-law often reminds me.
After almost twenty years I get a divorce. I am now forty-two, the mother of teens, and dating someone for the first time since I was a teenager. I’ve also started making bread again: focaccia with herbs from my garden, French loaves with whipped honey butter from my beehives, golden round loaves made with my new mixer. The bread is devoured in minutes by the family my new guy and I are patching together. He has never known anyone who makes bread, and he brags about me at work. “You are something else, you know that?” he says, beaming at me.
I know now to soak it all in: the bread, the life, the loneliness, and the hope.
I first met Margarita while taking my toddler out in a stroller. She lived with her husband and three children in one of the townhouses that surrounded our apartment complex’s courtyard. I saw her on her patio with her arms sunk in a large galvanized tub. As I approached, I could see and smell that the tub was filled with dough. “I love to bake bread,” she told me. “Usually I make more than I need. Would you like a loaf?”
I thanked her and asked if there was anything I could do to help.
“No, thanks, sugar,” she said. “This is my meditation time.”
Taking the hint, I left and went home to put my daughter down for a nap. Later that afternoon a man was at my door with a large canvas bag, from which he pulled a loaf of bread wrapped in plastic. “From Margarita,” he said. “I’m her husband, Roger. Do you have any wine?”
Thinking he wanted to borrow a bottle for his dinner, I let him in and rummaged through my kitchen. “All I’ve got is a pinot noir. Will that do?” I held out the bottle.
“Sure, but do you have any glasses and an opener?”
This struck me as odd, but perhaps they didn’t normally drink wine, so they didn’t have the right glassware for it. I took out a couple of wineglasses and set them on the coffee table with the opener. “Would you like me to wrap them?”
“No thanks,” he said, and proceeded to open the wine and pour two glasses. Then he sat down and lifted one. “Cheers! Welcome to the neighborhood.”
I sat down with him and wondered what was next.
Roger wanted to know where I was from, where my husband was from, if we had gone to college and where. He told me how he and Margarita had met: he was in graduate school, and she was waiting tables in a diner where he used to eat. As he poured himself a second glass, he told me that he’d tried to interest her in going to college, with no luck. He was now a professor in ancient history and couldn’t even talk about his work with her.
By now I was looking at the clock, hoping my husband would be home soon, so I could excuse myself from the my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me talk. But Roger polished off his second glass of wine and stood up. “Got to go! More bread to deliver. Nice jawin’ with ya.” He picked up his bag, and I watched him head across the courtyard to another house. A man and woman opened the door, then stood aside to let him in.
About eight o’clock Margarita walked to the middle of the courtyard and shouted for Roger that his dinner was getting cold. Roger came out of yet another house, staggering slightly, his canvas bag empty.
Every Friday night the routine was repeated. Talking with the other women in the complex, I discovered that Roger visited different people every week, always demanding a glass of wine, always carrying on a conversation. I realized Margarita knew exactly what she was doing. She supplied the bread, and the neighbors supplied the wine for Roger’s happy hour. He got to talk to other people, and she got to bake in peace instead of listening to him complain about her lack of conversational skills.
Mary Elizabeth Lang
My mother says she can’t express her feelings, but this isn’t true. Her bread speaks for her.
It speaks of the anxiousness of a twelve-year-old, the youngest daughter in a family of fourteen. The heat laps her face as she feeds the wood-burning oven. She bakes six loaves a day all through her teenage years, through a world war, and through her mother’s final fight with cancer.
It speaks of her resilience as a twenty-two-year-old, both her parents gone, who bakes in a gas oven now and buys underwear instead of sewing it from empty flour sacks. The wealthy couple for whom she works go from being employers, to mentors, to family.
It speaks of the earnestness of a thirty-year-old, packing slices of bread atop the meals she sends with her husband. He works as a fireman, and on his days off he earns extra cash at the top of a ladder, trimming trees. She will work as a secretary, an Avon saleswoman, a seamstress, a housekeeper, and a bookkeeper, but never once will her husband go without his homemade bread.
It speaks of my mother’s helplessness as a fifty-year-old, packing her daughter’s favorite lunch: a hot dog wrapped in warm, homemade bread. After lunch, while the other children run on the playground, her bullied daughter remains inside alone, nursing that piece of bread until recess ends.
It speaks of the adoration of a seventy-year-old, her grandchildren elbow-deep in a bowl of dough that oozes between their fingers. Later she will serve the bread to them smothered with butter and sugar, convinced that their cavities come from the Cokes their other grandma gives them.
It speaks of the wistfulness of a ninety-three-year-old, texting her now-grown grandchildren to offer them bread. “I fell asleep while it was baking,” she admits as she hands the loaves through a barely open door. “You can tear off the crust if it’s too hard for you.”
“It’s perfect, Grandma,” they reply from behind their masks. They long to hug her but avoid even a touch as they accept the loaves from her weathered hands.
St. Louis, Missouri
As a kindergartner in the 1950s I lived in a run-down parsonage on a block we shared with a potato-chip factory and a cola-bottling company. The trains that serviced the factories traveled on tracks that bordered our lot. My father was a mission pastor tasked with nurturing a fledgling church, and money was scarce. My mother stayed home with my brother and me and made ends meet by sewing our clothes and baking from scratch. Her specialty was bread.
We weren’t the only people aware of the bread baking in our oven. Hoboes who rode the trains had apparently marked our house; not infrequently they showed up at our back door. My mother set up a card table outside the kitchen, complete with a toaster and margarine. The often unkempt but always fascinating train riders would relax and eat fresh buttered toast.
My mother told us stories about the Depression years, when her father fed anyone who wandered through their farm and sometimes offered the visitor work. The practice of giving a hand up went back to the turn of the century, when my grandfather’s family, German immigrants to the U.S., had been shown similar consideration by others.
Years later I was teaching Latin and discussing the Roman ideal of hospitium: hospitality as a divine right. When I shared my memories with students, they were skeptical to the point of accusing me of lying. No one would allow a stranger into her home, they declared, nor would farmers welcome trespassers on their land. In this era of suspicion and self-protection, of doorbell cameras and alarm systems, we have sadly lost the concept of hospitality — and the possibility of, as the Bible says, “entertaining angels unawares.”
Fort Wayne, Indiana
© Alex Kustanovich
I was sixteen when I discovered my father had been born in Russia. From that day on I plied him with questions, and he remembered for me the chill inside his house, the ink-blue river, the moon at night. On the kitchen table there was usually a loaf of bread, he said, stale at the edges but fresh at the center.
He told me his father had long, tapered fingers and a solemn expression. My father’s mother had wild red hair and dreams of immigrating to America. My father sat to her right, sipping borscht, while his sister, Sarah, laughed. She was older and had a voice like a revving engine.
One night his brother, Abe, who would die before they came to this country, told his father he was hungry.
My father’s mother stood, hands on her hips. “Leo,” she said to my father, who was then seven years old, “take the lantern, walk by the river, and go to my sister Ester’s house. She always has bread.”
My father put on his frayed blue coat with the brass buttons. The wind was harsh, and he swayed from side to side. When he arrived, Ester let him warm his hands by the fire, wrapped the bread in paper, secured it under his shirt, and sent him back into the night. His family opened the door and welcomed him. Abe clung to my father’s legs in gratitude.
Months later my father’s village was massacred by a pogrom. His house was gutted, and his family fled to America. They lived on New York City’s Lower East Side and then Staten Island. My father got honors in high school and studied literature and languages at Harvard. Russia became like a bad dream.
In the U.S. there was always bread on my father’s table. In the hard times after his divorce from my mother, he served me black bread and butter in his new apartment. It tasted like I imagined heaven would. Each time my father started a new career — chicken farmer, stockbroker, teacher, salesman, president of an electronics corporation — a warm loaf came out of the oven. It represented a new beginning.
New York, New York
About a year before Grandma passed away, my sister, Juda, and I began competing for her Thanksgiving-stuffing recipe: visiting her more often, jockeying to be the one to take her grocery shopping, and calling at least once a day to shoot the breeze. I think she saw more of us that summer than ever before.
Grandma’s recipe wasn’t exactly hers. She’d gotten it from her mama, who’d gotten it from hers — all the way back to the beginning of time. A recipe that good had to be a gift from God.
Grandma knew her time was coming. And she knew exactly what she was doing by making us fight for her favor. She even encouraged it. My bitter struggle with Juda reached a turning point the day I found out Grandma had given her “the pan.” Grandma herself had been given this pan at the same time she was given the recipe. It was the ark that held her covenant each Thanksgiving. Try making Grandma’s stuffing in any other pan, and you would wind up with everyone else’s stuffing. Other heirlooms — artworks, clocks, jewelry — were worthless compared to the pan. And Juda had gotten it.
I figured Grandma had chosen Juda because the recipe had always been handed down woman-to-woman, but Grandma wasn’t through yet. She firmly believed in allowing feelings to simmer, much like food, for as long as possible. A month after my sister got the pan, Grandma called me over. Juda was there.
“I knew this was going to happen,” Grandma said. “You never got along as kids. Why would I think y’all would be any different now?” She handed us each a sealed envelope and told us to open them when we got home. That night I ripped into the envelope, expecting to find an apology. Instead I found three-quarters of the stuffing recipe, written in Grandma’s careful, exaggerated hand. Grandma had written out the other quarter of the recipe for my sister.
Each year at Thanksgiving Juda brings Grandma’s pan, and we work in separate rooms to prepare our parts of the stuffing. When those two parts are brought together, we create something more important than any rivalry.
I knew things were bad when I started dreaming about bread. My twentieth birthday was approaching, and we had entered the third month of the siege of Sarajevo, in what was then Yugoslavia. We scrabbled like rats to avoid shells and sniper fire as we searched for food. The only bread to be found was stale and occasionally moldy — and even that was a treat. Most days we subsisted on rice and crackers.
In one dream I rushed to the corner store where my grandma had often sent me as a young girl. As I passed a nondescript socialist building and a shiny storefront with Western appliances, I began to smell bread baking. At the store, when a warm bun hit my shopping basket, the temptation to take a bite was overwhelming. The crackling crust and milky interior melted in my mouth.
Another dream had me fleeing a smoke- and alcohol-filled discotheque on a snowy night, after being rebuffed by a teenage crush. “We know what will cheer you up,” my girlfriends chirped. “Let’s go to the mosque for hot buns!” Soon my freezing hands clutched a blistering-hot roll from their twenty-four-hour bakery. It felt like a balm.
After escaping the war and immigrating to a small Missouri town, I started to buy sliced Wonder Bread in a plastic bag, storing it in the fridge for days. It kept me from going hungry in those early days of my American life, but the joy I’d once experienced from bread was gone.
Years later I left my marriage and moved to Washington, D.C., for a job. While shopping, I caught a familiar scent coming from a bakery tucked in the corner of a market. I reached for a tissue to wipe my tears.
My three-year-old son tugged at my arm: “Mama, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing at all,” I said. “Let’s get some fresh bread.”
As a young man I yearned to be a bread baker, but I failed time and again to get my dough to rise. Bread was the brass ring just out of reach. I asked people for advice and read many cookbooks, but I couldn’t sort out my problems. Bread seemed too complicated for my beginner-level abilities.
In my sophomore year of college my girlfriend bought me The Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown, for my birthday. At first I thought it was just another cookbook and was reluctant to open it. I’d gotten tired of my long run of baking failures. Once I cracked the book, though, I realized it presented a new way of thinking about bread. It was riffs and impressions, not recipes and repetitious drills.
I began to approach bread baking, and subsequently all cooking, with improvisation. Instead of being a meticulous automaton, I’d concoct breads without measuring a single thing, tossing flour with wild abandon. I’d dig deep into the fridge to find anything that might go to waste, combining things like sour cream, habaneros, parsley, and eggs into a dough.
That was twenty years ago. I’ve been baking my wacky breads for friends and family ever since. I still have the book, with a sweet inscription from my girlfriend, who went on to marry a chef and become a teacher. It says, “May you continue to nourish yourself and others with your delicious breads.” The book is tattered. The binding is held together with clear packing tape. I memorized its contents long ago, but I still flip through it as a reminder that failure is temporary, but bread is forever.
After I had left my husband — he was unpredictable and unable to provide for our family — I moved my three children and myself from Brooklyn to a rented house in New Jersey. I had no idea just how expensive it would be to keep the place warm in winter.
My children were sixteen, thirteen, and three. The oldest two were from a previous relationship, and their father had disappeared many years ago; my current husband was the father of my three-year-old. I had made consistently poor choices of men, but I vowed that my children would always be taken care of, no matter what.
Every Sunday when I was not on call for a shift at the taxi service, I would bake two loaves of bread. The aroma encouraged the children to leave their warm beds and wander to the kitchen.
Since I couldn’t afford furniture, we placed a comforter on the floor and had a picnic. Slathering butter on warm slices, we shared stories of the previous week and our plans for the future. Who could imagine that something so simple as a loaf of bread — which my three-year-old dubbed “magic bread” — could bring us so close?
Those days are long gone. My children are grown, with lives and children of their own. I’m thankful that they’re able to provide for themselves and their families. But I would give anything to have just one more Sunday morning with the three of them: sitting on the kitchen floor, owning only the most basic necessities, the future unknown.
Hackettstown, New Jersey
Throughout the Great Depression my great-grandfather made bread. He sold it to people who could pay and gave it to those who could not. The smudged and splattered recipes he passed down to us, written out in his slanted cursive hand, were often multiplied by five or twelve.
My grandpa Paul was his son. In his home there was always fresh bread, along with homemade jam and towers of cookies. Grandpa Paul was an engineer by trade but a musician and singer at heart. He was well nourished by his wife, who cooked and baked three meals a day for her family of seven. Though a quiet man, Grandpa Paul emphatically appreciated baked goods. Before the dinner plates were cleared, he’d always pipe up with an eager “Who’s ready for some pie?”
When I was twenty-three, I was a kindergarten assistant at a Waldorf school where baking bread with the children was part of our weekly rhythm. I felt connected to my great-grandfather as the students and I kneaded the dough. The school hallway filled with the inviting smell of our loaves baking.
In the spring of that year my mother called to tell me my grandfather was dying. His health had been declining, and I knew he had stopped eating, but I felt that bread could still bring him comfort, if only through the sense of smell. I quickly mixed a batch of dough, covered it with a warm cloth, and hurried to my car for the hour-plus drive to pick up my younger sister.
At my grandparents’ apartment I put the risen dough in a pan and slid it into the oven. As my sister and I sat in the living room where Grandpa lay dying, we sang, “I am a poor wayfaring stranger. . . . I’m going there to see my father. . . .” The familiar aroma of bread filled the room.
To our amazement, Grandpa joined us with his own pure tenor as we sang “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Softly, but with perfect pitch as always, he added the third-part harmony to our alto and soprano voices.
On my grandpa’s last day of life, we sat with him and ate bread.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
My husband’s affair with bread is no passing fancy brought on by quarantine boredom. His infatuation began years ago when he brewed beer and wondered what to do with the spent grain. For a girl who grew up thinking Wonder Bread was a luxury, making food from leftover beer ingredients sounded about as tasty as eating from the forest floor, but my husband had discovered a passion.
Soon he had a sourdough starter that he fed constantly. Babied, really. He monitored whether “she” was active or dormant and researched what to do with her “discard.” He mastered sourdough waffles, English muffins, pretzels. He scoured baking sites the way some men sneak porn.
Part of my jealousy stems from the knowledge that he’d never have had such success with bread without my help. When we married, he didn’t know a teaspoon was a standard unit of measurement; he’d use the spoon that was “too small for cereal.” Even recently, when he wanted to gloss a crust, he asked me to separate the egg because he was “afraid.”
I admit I’ve enabled this obsession. I’ve allowed purchases of pans, crocks, scrapers, slicers, racks, and even stencils that transform flour dust into bouquets of wheat. At Christmas I ordered him a wood-fired pizza oven. Even I have been fantasizing about the dough.
Mary Beth Stuller
To Italians a precious person is buono come il pane (“good like bread”), since bread is holy. There is bread on the table every night in my house. Homemade bread is a supreme act of love.
While starting a business a few years ago, I kept forgetting to eat. My husband, getting ready to go back to Italy for his own business, was worried. He prepared soups, stews, and sauces to put in the fridge, and he baked me a loaf of bread. As he left for the airport, he said, “Don’t forget the bread.” The loaf was still hot from the oven, but I could barely smell it, I was so consumed by work. Without preservatives, it would grow mold in a day or two. I wrapped it in butcher paper and put it on the shelf.
Three days later I remembered it. With tears in my eyes I carefully amputated the moldy parts and salvaged what I could. As I cut, I thought about how precious my husband is to me and how comparatively unimportant my to-do list was.
To this day, when I need to remember what really matters, I tell myself: Don’t forget the bread.