By Sue Browning, March/April 2008
It was in my Grandma Clara’s farm kitchen, amid a cloud of flour and the heady fragrance of yeast, that I inherited my knowledge of bread making. I can’t use the word learned because that would be an inadequate description. From an early age, my education on what it took to make bread extended beyond our kitchen into the fields where oats and wheat grew, the barn where milk and butter came from, and the chicken coop where I collected brown eggs from disapproving hens who scolded me for my efforts.
On bread day I helped my grandmother gather tools and ingredients on the kitchen counter. The counter ran beneath a window that faced west across land ruffled with fields of hay and corn. Beyond the windowsill, a line of oak trees my grandparents had planted early in their marriage followed a tractor road as it curved between the garden and the machine shed. The oaks stopped at the edge of the garden, but the dirt road went on until it was swallowed up by pasture. In spring, while I created white mountains on the counter with the flour sifter, we watched my grandfather plowing in the distance, the rich soil churning up behind him like black flour.
We would begin by dissolving cake yeast in warm milk in a giant stoneware bowl. Slowly, I added flour one cup at a time. After we had a gummy mixture of flour and liquid, we added salt, melted butter, more warm milk and flour, until the sticky mass could no longer be managed with the wooden spoon. Now it was ready to be turned out on the floured counter.
Little by little we kneaded in the geography of my flour hills, my grandmother’s strong arms and fingers pushing and rolling the dough in a practiced pattern. Soon the unruly blob transformed to a smooth well-mannered ball. During these times I learned flour had not always come easily dipped from the bin in the pantry. Instead, Grandma Clara earned it by cranking the arm of a hand-operated grain grinder into which was poured kernels of red winter wheat.
“Spend a day grinding bushels of wheat into flour, then you know you’ve done something,” she would tell me.
Turning our now chastened dough back into the bowl, she let me cover it with a clean dishtowel. Then my grandmother would suggest we lie down for a few minutes to “give the bread some quiet.” I was well acquainted with this naptime ruse and would volunteer to watch the bread so nothing bad happened. But my grandmother insisted.
“Just close your eyes for a few minutes,” she said, holding me tight so I couldn’t wiggle away. I closed my eyes, certain each time I would sneak away as soon as she fell asleep. But the warmth of my grandmother’s shoulder, the creaking of the old house and the smell of sunshine on the quilt cast a sleepy spell over me. Later, I woke to the clatter of empty bread tins being lined up on the counter and my grandmother softly humming.
Together we divided the dough and shaped it in the loaf pans. After its second rise, just before we slipped the pans into the mouth of the cast-iron oven, we each pressed a thumbprint into a corner of the loaves.
“There now, we’ve left our sign,” she would say. When the hot fragrant bread came out of the oven, I carefully inspected the corners. There, in the lovely brown crust, I could see our faint marks. They were a trace, a small reminder of our presence, a sign that we had bequeathed a bit of ourselves to the bread and whoever might enjoy it.
—Sue Browning, a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, has been published in The Almanac for Farmers & City Folk, Welcome Home Magazine and 515 Magazine.