The most effective way to determine whether I am content is the frequency of my baking endeavours. The last several months (with a few exceptions) have seen a noticeable absence of a flour covered apron and a well-used mixing bowl in my life. This was mainly due to stress, an unsatisfied wanderlust, and general weltschmerz. But recently I’ve changed apartments, I’m pretty happy with the special people in my life, and the weltschmerz has been melted away by warm, endless summer days. Today I pulled out my mom’s old recipe for bread. She wrote it out for me years ago, along with all my old favourites, in a sketchbook that has become my hodge-podge, scrapbook style, collection of recipes. In a time when most people I know who bake bread create beautiful artisanal loaves, baked on stones and in Dutch ovens, and with carefully cultivated starters, my mom’s bread seems rather dull in comparison. But to me, it embodies a loving nostalgia and a comforting sense of home.
School was always hard for me, I was shy and never quite fit in so my days were often scored with an undercurrent of anxiety. In those moments when I walked through the back door to a warm house, smelling of freshly baked bread, my mouth would water in anticipation of the first slice and my anxiety would melt away, forgotten. Even today, the smell of fresh bread instills in me a sense of peace.
Later, bread baking became a time of meditation and reflection. On the occasions when my mother would let me help, she would always say that we had to be very quiet or the bread wouldn’t rise. Of course, in retrospect, I suspect this was a clever ploy to ensure at least two hours of peace and quiet, but this practice of baking bread as a quiet activity stayed with me. When I was living away from home and had the occasion and motivation to take out my mom’s recipe and do my own bread baking, I always made sure I was alone and, if I had the radio on, it would be turned down as low as possible. In these times, the mixing, the kneading, and the endless wait for the dough to rise, was accompanied by silence. I would allow my mind to settle, inhaling the yeasty smell. By the time the bread was in the oven, my mind would have sunk into a deep serenity, a feeling that would last for hours afterwards.
It has been a very long time since I baked my mother’s bread. Years. But today I pulled out the sketchbook and the mixing bowls, got out the yeast and the flour, scalded the milk and stirred in the salt and sugar. I kneaded the dough, my arms moving back and forth as my hands folded and shaped. I waited, quietly and patiently, whilst the bread rose, magically expanding and overtaking its space. I shaped the loaves and waited some more, silent all the while. Soon, my tiny apartment was filled with the smell of baking bread, taking me back to that child version of me, whose anxiety could be cured by a simple slice of my mother’s homemade bread