My copy of “Beard on Bread” disappeared from its shelf above the refrigerator. Had I lent it? Probably not. After thirtysome years of use its pages were so smudged with doughy finger marks that it wasn’t presentable enough to share. Whatever the fate of the old cookbook, it was time for a replacement.
The day the mailman brought my new Beard, I was already thinking about my mom; a friend had just told me that her mother passed away. An odd mental wandering, because Mom was not a bread baker.
My mother was from Ontario, Canada. The Canadians are, on the whole, the loveliest people you could ever meet. However, until fairly recently, it seems to me they had a sort of national pride in their reputation for bland cookery. My father used to say that his handful of Canadian sisters-in-law could ruin any cut of meat if you gave them enough time. Baking pies and bread, though, was a very different matter.
Over time, Mom became a wonderful, adventurous cook, cheered on by my dad, a world-class knife-and-fork man – never had to worry about weight or cholesterol. Few things made Mom and Dad happier than presenting an abundance of good food to a table full of interesting company.
My parents would try anything, once, sometimes edging toward the exotic, frequently experimental. When I was maybe a dozen years old, for a summer party they dug a pit among the roses, filled the bottom with hot coals, added a well-dressed goat, covered it all over with wet burlap and then a few feet of earth and waited for a couple of days. I remember the guests’ fun when the goat was disinterred more than I do the actual meal. Another time they acquired the head of a boar somewhere – maybe it was just a pig’s head – and made head cheese and carnitas from it; I fled the house after getting one look at the beast.
Their garden was a wonder. They grew cucumbers to make an interesting variety of pickles, and plums and two kinds of peaches for jam and jelly and something called sillibub that was delicious over ice cream but had enough alcohol as “preservative” to knock you on your keister if taken straight. And – you get the idea.
Like her sisters, my mom made world-class pie crusts, the quick-hand technique taught them by their mother. When I asked Mom for the recipe, there wasn’t one to give to me. I knew the how of it from watching her, but to get the right proportions of ingredients I had to stand beside Mom and measure every item as she added it. “How much flour did you just add?” I’d say. She’d say, “Enough.” Or, “Most of the Princess Rose teacup full.”
Of all the cooking my mother attempte over the years, the one skill she never mastered was bread making. She tried it a few times at about the time that Julia Child showed up on television, but lost interest after a few less-than-yummy results. Good bread takes a lot of practice to do well. Mom, who would try anything once, did not have the patience to futz with bread.
During a summer visit to my Aunt Mamie’s dairy farm in Ontario, Canada, when I was about seven, I had my first bread-making lesson. My aunt, who was also a school teacher, baked bread every second or third day in a giant wood-burning stove that stood in the middle of their big farmhouse kitchen. She used the same sort of recipe for bread that Mom did for pie crust: add enough flour, a good pinch of salt, another thumb of butter. I remember standing on a stool beside Aunt Mamie while she mixed the dough in a billowing cloud of flour, and then helping her knead it. Until it felt right.
That was the important lesson, sticking with it until you learned to know intuitively when it was right.
Mom always wanted to write, as I always had. She was a great story teller and had a gift for language. With permission, I used a story she told me about a family in the little town where she grew up – one of the many sons was a pupil of Aunt Mamie – to write a short story titled “Nine Sons.” Mom was proud of my story when it was published and won awards, and she shared it with her family. But after that, she decided that the time had come: If she was ever going to write, she needed to set about doing it. She had hinted about something dark that happened when she was a little girl, but said she wouldn’t tell me the details unless she failed to write a story about it herself. So, she sat down with pad and pen, and wrote, for maybe a day.
Mom had all the right ingredients for a wonderful story except one: patience to stay in a chair long enough to get it right. When the words just did not fall together immediately, as she thought they should, she handed me the ten unsatisfying, hand-written pages she had written and told me the story. Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing it for her.
Like bread making, good writing takes a lot of measuring and futzing and enough experience to know when it’s right. And for both, that’s the hard part – staying with it long enough to produce something that is just right.
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