Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Rise to the Occasion, Or Make Good Trades to Get There
With a high value placed on whole grains, and a small budget to feed a large family, when I was young, we made at fifteen loaves of homemade bread each week at our house. The dough was mixed as we stood on orange vinyl kitchen chairs to reach the counter that was still a few years away from being an appropriate workplace height for young girls. It was then kneaded for ten minutes, and left to rise with a cloth draped across the top of the bowl. After approximately one hour, the dough was revisited for shaping and placing in metal loaf pans. Again the bread was left for another hour of rising. The dough was then baked in the oven until the outside crust was thin, golden and crisp and the inside was soft and airy.
One loaf was often immediately devoured as soon as it emerged from the oven. As much as we might tire of it during the week, after smelling it baking, we always wanted a slice warm with melting butter swathed all over. But the other loaves were placed to cool with the top crust softened with butter. Then we placed a couple in the kitchen and the remaining loaves were wrapped and taken to the basement freezer. There they sat until one or two were pulled out each morning for that day’s consumption.
We ate bread for at least two meals a day. Breakfast might consist of toast, creamed eggs on toast, or even French toast. Lunch during the summer was always a sandwich, often a staple like peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and honey, or tuna salad. Bologna was considered a real treat. Of course, peeling the red strip off the diameter was almost as fun as eating the salty meat slice. During the school year we ate hot lunch at the elementary, but often the dinner entrée was served with a side of bread and butter.
With the prolific nature of the thick, dense baked item, we were usually not very excited about eating it. Some of the ladies in town would rave to Mom about how spoiled we were to get homemade bread every week. But we did not understand how it was such a treat. We had tasted white store-bought bread at friends’ homes and on vacation so we knew it tasted much better than homemade bread. We also believed those ladies would not call us spoiled if they knew we were the ones making the bread, not Mom. Though at our young age, that thought probably never even crossed their minds.
We certainly felt anything but spoiled when it came time to prepare the dreaded Field Trip Sack Lunch. We begged Mom to buy store bought bread for the lunch we had to prepare, take on a bus, and eat in front of our classmates. But she never would. We were so worried about being embarrassed to bring homemade bread, so we did everything to disguise our sandwiches’ origins. The night before Field Trip Day, we’d get out the best bread knife and slice as slowly as we could to get two perfect thin, straight slices of homemade bread, hoping they might pass for the store bought variety. It did not matter if it took an entire loaf to get two perfect slices, because neither time nor loaves of bread were a scarcity. But no matter what we tried, inevitably we’d get to some park in between museums, pull out our sack lunches, and as we peeled the Saran Wrap off the sandwich, someone would notice our odd meal.
“Hey,” they’d ask incredulously, “Is your sandwich made with homemade bread?”
All the kids would be involved in a trading frenzy, swapping Oreos for Little Debbie Snacks, and Tootsie Rolls for Pixie Sticks.
We’d sit with our thick peanut butter and honey sandwich, white milk, homemade oatmeal cookie and apple, wondering in vane what we had that could be traded for our classmate’s Chick-o-Stick.
One Saturday after the morning’s baking was complete, Mom told us to take a fresh loaf of bread to Mrs. Cleek, our elderly next door neighbor. Mrs. Cleek had been in the hospitable and Mom felt it would be a nice gesture. We didn’t know what someone who had been in the hospitable would want with a loaf of homemade bread, but we obeyed and took her one of the nicest shaped loaves.
We were surprised when Mrs. Cleek seemed genuinely touched by the gesture. Before we turned to leave, she asked us to wait by the door. She shuffled painfully slowly away and we waited impatiently. To ease our boredom, we tried to peer into the foreign abode that was so nearby, yet so strange to us. In the poorly lit home we craned our necks to get a peek at her many figurines of little children on doilies and piles of papers. Our heads whipped back upright as we heard her coming back down the hallway to the front entry.
In her hand was a bag of Brach’s caramels. When she tried to give it to us, we resisted, knowing our mother would not want us to take such an expensive gift. But she positively insisted, so as to not upset her, we finally relented and opened our hands to receive the generous offering. We ran home and when we finally convinced Mom how happy it made Mrs. Cleek for us to have this candy, she eventually decided we could keep the bag.
We ate the chewy candies until they no longer tasted very good. Then we unwrapped, chewed, and swallowed a few more. Finally when our stomachs could take no more, we stopped.
Each Saturday after that, we would ask Mom if we could take Mrs. Cleek a loaf of bread. Mom knew of our intentions, so she explained that she would deliver a loaf on Monday after we went to school. But sometimes, with so many loaves of bread and so many children helping in the kitchen, there was no way for Mom to keep track of everything, so we’d sneak a loaf over to Mrs. Cleek. And if she didn’t offer to bring us something right away we’d make a little small talk, until she asked us to wait by the door, while she shuffled to her pantry to get us something much better than a loaf of bread.