I am not so interested in the narrative arc that would take me from chocolate chip cookies to the lengths of sponge cake or rolled pastry. But, bread. I considered bread, as a step forward.
Baking bread exists somewhere in the reaches of my mother’s memory. The rising and falling breathing chest of a shadow cast upon me from the corner of the fire where her bread used to rise in a cracked wooden salad bowl.
“But I have a bread maker,” Dad says.
“You don’t have a bread maker. That’s mine.”
“No. Someone gave it to me.”
“Me. That’s mine. I bought it for my classroom.” I thought I could bake bread alongside the conversation about a food that connects across all cultures. I am still proud of many of those attempts at conversation, but I never did attempt the bread.
“You could use it.”
“I don’t want to cheat.” I don’t know if that’s the word, but it’s the sentiment.
Baking bread is a test of daring to do things, perhaps not the “right” way, but definitely the long way. The way that makes you take tiny steps and wait. The way of less familiarity and more uncertainty. Maybe I attribute too much to bread, but I attribute too much to every object always in search of my next metaphor.
On a Thursday evening, I check out a book from the library. On a Friday morning, I mark three recipes. On a Saturday morning, I buy yeast and bread tins. I bake.
The bread doesn’t rise.
I close my eyes and remember the wooden bowl again in the corner of the living room that now holds dog toys.
“Did you put it in a warm place,” my friend asks.
“Yes,” I type.
“The yeast then. Water wasn't warm enough, maybe."
Not warm enough? But, women used to make bread in shetls, in Siberia, in very cold places. Even though temperatures that weekend were almost record setting, I wonder how my modern kitchen couldn't provide the environment the yeast used hundreds of years before. I do what I always do. I ask a community of women.
"Don't know. Baking bread is hard."
"My mother never baked bread."
"Probably the yeast."
Not exactly the coming together of female experience I had hoped for, much less interest in the topic. Still, somehow, there is power that surges in me, not because I admit the failure, but because I know I’m not a failure, nor am I done, trying.
"Try this. I don't know where it came from." My dad hands me a book with a ripped book jacket. The color and texture are cream. Soft, wrinkles. My mother's hands.
For a week I read all I can about yeast. On a Wednesday, I return the library book. On a Thursday, I reread the hints at the beginning of the book my dad had handed to me. I listen to my mother in a volume I can hear, the black and white kind. On a Friday, I mark recipes. On a Saturday afternoon, I bake bread.
This time with the yeast, I am so very careful. I do not cook the oatmeal and activate the yeast at the same time, even though the book says I can. I don’t have a way to measure the water temperature and ensure its range of 100 to 115 degrees. Although, I do laugh that in the cold, drafty kitchen any water might be too hot. I insert a meat thermometer into the oatmeal to get an idea. It reads 130 degrees. I run the tap. The thermometer doesn’t move. I run the tap again until my hands steam. The thermometer doesn’t move. I heat water in the microwave not once but twice, and then I carry the bowl to the stove that burns corn instead of wood and I stir.
The bits of yeast clump in the slowly tinting water. I stir faster. I lift the spoon up to watch a creamier mixture drip down. Is this it? Have I waited long enough? Is it working? I stir again. I catch a whiff. I search nearer present memories. Last Saturday, there was no smell. This must be it. And then, the bowl, holds bubbles. The yeast breathes. Hope lives. The smell is warm. Warmth is my mother’s pink sweater and soft hands. I stare at their shape in my own clad in my father’s knuckles. I begin to knead. I use the emergency flour Dad keeps for the end of the world.
“At least we’ll be able to make bread.”
“Even if we’ve never made bread before?” I snort.
The yeast he bought was too old. I bought new.
“We won’t have yeast.”
Food. But no air.
Halfway through, I’m already tired. My eyelids droop alongside the dog’s ears.
Peek. Twenty minutes.
Don’t peek. Thirty.
I have to.
Familiarity in certain steps allow me focus, but intensify my anxiety centered around yeast. Too much energy spent on anxiety is not much different than the yeast being allowed to rise too long. It will not have left what it needs when it counts. If my lesson is patience, I haven’t learned it.
After an hour and a half, I “punch” it down. Punch does not mean punch. It is not what makes muscles tire at the gym. But, my shoulders ache swung over the counter. Punch means knead again. Knead, and roll and fold and pinch.
“How much longer?” Dad asks.
“Another couple hours. It has to rise again. Then, bake."
I worry I might have eaten up too much yeast. Or, I might simply be being made ready for my second rise. Shiny tins hidden from view, warm to my touch. I sense them without peeking. My view is not clad in eyelashes, but nose hairs.
“Do you smell it?”
Dad keeps talking.
“The bread do you smell it?”
“Last time, it didn’t smell. It smells like the yeast just before it bubbled.”
“The staff of life. That’s bread,” he says.
"I was supposed to measure the water temp but I didn't have anything."
"How about a human thermometer?"
"Huh? I guess I could have."
The smell is warmth and the warmth is alive. A human thermometer meant for tongues. Activated yeast breathes. It exhales my mother across my cheek, across the room separated from me by the stove’s flames. When I wait long enough, it’s better, and “right” though right is perhaps not yet, the word. My tongue forms words. Words and warmth spread.
“I think it could get more air, be a bit less thick. But, it’s better," I describe bread to the other women. “I can still improve,” I tell my friend.
“It takes a bit of practice to get it right.”
She says ‘it’, but I don’t hear ‘it’, because I’m practicing, I’m waiting for so much more than bread.
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