A recipe passed down through the generations fills a house with more than just lovely aromas.
- Posted on Feb 8, 2011
There’s nothing quite so homey as the smell of baking bread.
I know. I’ve been baking bread as long as I can remember.
Yes, now there are bread machines, but I can’t imagine using one. For me, a loaf of bread is more than flour, yeast and water. It’s what’s kept my family going for generations. It has truly been the staff of life.
One of my earliest memories is watching my grandmother bake bread in her old-fashioned kitchen in a fishing village in the frozen north of Canada. She had a wood-fired stove. I sat in the warmth sipping a tiny cup of tea Grandmother made me.
She stood at the counter kneading dough and telling stories of her childhood. Her mother died in childbirth. Grandmother helped take care of her siblings. She had to learn to bake bread when she was a girl. The family couldn’t afford store-bought. She’d been baking so long I’m sure she could’ve done it blindfolded. She glided around the kitchen like a dancer, every move seeming effortless. It was only when she opened the stove to tend the fire that I saw baking bread was work as well as art.
A blast of heat whooshed out and Grandmother’s face flushed in a single triangle-shaped spot on her forehead. I always watched for that spot. It was a sign of the effort—and the love—that went into her bread.
Grandmother taught my mom to bake bread and Mom continued the tradition. Our kitchen didn’t look like Grandmother’s. It was modern, with pine cabinets, shiny counters with metal trim and a wall-mounted oven. But whenever Mom baked bread, it felt like northern Canada. Just like Grandmother, Mom told stories of her childhood in that Canadian fishing village.
“It was so cold!” she said. “Everywhere snow and ice. I used to sit by the stove while Mom made bread. That was the coziest spot in the house.”
We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and Mom worried about Dad getting laid off. The only indication I ever saw of Mom’s anxiety was when it came time to punch down the dough. She plunged her fist in fiercely, as if she were releasing her worries. Then, calm, she divided the dough and put it into bread pans. While the bread rose, I ran out to play.
When the dough was puffy, Mom dotted it with butter and slipped the loaves into the oven. Soon that heavenly smell wafted out the window. Like clockwork my friends began turning up, asking, “When’s the bread going to be done?” Mom pulled the bread from the oven, dabbed the loaves with butter and set them out to cool. Then came my favorite part, a slice for everyone!
Ordinarily we didn’t bake bread in the summer. Too hot. One year, though, money was tight and our car broke down. We couldn’t afford repairs. Mom walked to the auto shop looking worried. When she returned she was smiling. She pulled down the shades, turned on the fans and set to work. Soon the kitchen was sweltering.
“Why are you baking?” I asked.
“The man at the garage agreed to fix our car in exchange for some of my bread,” she said. “I know it’s hot, but we just have to do it.” Soon the loaves were ready. I saw the sweat trickling down Mom’s neck. On her forehead was a triangular-shaped red spot. Just like Grandmother’s.
I bake bread these days not because I have to but because I love to. When I first began I had to look at the recipe for every step. Now I almost feel Mom and Grandmother moving around the kitchen with me.
Sometimes it’s more than a feeling. If the day is very warm or I’m in the kitchen a long time I feel my face get flushed. I glance in the mirror and see, on my forehead, a triangular-shaped red spot. From Grandmother to Mom to me. A sign of a family tradition, bread made with love.