The issue with a great deal of things in life is that they are impermanent. We’d like to think they last millennia, that wearing raccoon eyeliner won’t be a phase, Mom. Unfortunately, as disheartening it is to teens everywhere, in the grand scheme of the universe, so many things are fleeting, including time itself.
Bread is forever.
Ever since people first figured it out over ten thousand years ago, it has been a defining staple of cuisine and culture all over the world. German pretzels’ smooth egg-wash finish both finely and firmly holds its carefully measured goodness. Mexican pan de muertos celebrates family and generational kinship in its lovable sweetness and sculpted flair. Russian black bread resolutely holds its sturdy shape no matter the topping du jour over its sweet and sour core. Humans disagree on a lot of things—how to build things, how to take care of things, how to coexist. However, almost everyone agrees on one thing:
Today’s bread can take many shapes and forms, have hundreds of names and thousands of ingredients, but many aspects of bread making have been the same for centuries (except of course, for sliced bread, which is younger than Betty White). There are delightful grandmas in Wyoming who have yeast that’s been active for over 100 years and passed down from generation to generation. Just like the previous batch had been. Despite technology’s best efforts, you still have to let your dough rise in a warm place, whether by your log cabin window with dusty sunbeams streaming in or in the proving drawer of the oven that your grandparents bought with their first house in the sixties, a teal blue that matches the old Frigidaire in the garage.
Bread is an incredibly wondrous food. Sometimes I enjoy it with butter and cheese like my mom ate in her childhood and passed on as an integral taste of mine, butter and sprinkles for an Australian fairy bread, or toasted with some cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top like I read about in a children’s magazine when I was seven; because with bread anything goes.
In addition to all the edible (and delectable) joy it brings, I find a specific elation in baking it. When the pandemic hit this year and shelves emptied, many people turned to baking bread. It was a way to pass the time while stuck inside and a way to get fresh bread when one’s local Jewel had run out. The internet exploded with memes about sourdough loaves, with dilettante bakers showing off their misshapen slabs proudly for the World Wide Web to see. But as internet trends often do, it soon quieted down. No one really talks about their bread anymore, at least not in the environments subject to monetization. You swipe from cakes that look remarkably like other objects, to cooking ‘bacon’ in an air fryer, pancake cereal, making frog-shaped-foods, one-pan-feta-pasta, and other novelties with varying cost-per-click values.
I, an individual ill-fatedly known for my habitual lack of vogue awareness, got onto the trend a bit late—still blissfully unaware of its very existence. Last October, I directed myself into my kitchen, pulled up a recipe, and decided that bread would be made right there and then.
The first bread I tried to make was a simple whole-wheat loaf. Whole wheat—to preserve a vague sense of healthiness, and simple because I could not handle anything but.
I measured out the ingredients to the letter—or rather, number, scooping up powdery soft flour with my measuring cup and leveling it off with a knife like a seasoned Food Network chef. I watched the yeast, water and sugar swirl together until it foamed up several inches in my Pyrex measuring cup. I mixed everything together with a worn wooden spoon that smells like petrichor. I went in with my hands, and kept punching and squeezing even when that with which I was working seemed to have fused with my fingers. I put it into a loaf pan, fired a quick prayer, and slid it into the oven.
I had utterly failed. The bread was dense, bitter, under-salted, too wet but also somehow too dry. Paul Hollywood of the Great British Bake Off would not have been pleased.
But I kept on trying.
I haven’t perfect bread yet, not in the slightest. When I look for recipes online I still search for ones with “no knead” and “easy” in their cutely named food blog titles. There are plenty of skills I haven’t built up yet; keeping a close eye on the yeast, kneading the dough until it springs up just enough once I poke it, knocking on it with my knuckle once it’s out of the oven to check if it sounds hollow.
For now though, I’ll focus on feeling the dough between my fingers, stretching and folding it until it’s a happy lump ready to rise. I will sprinkle the cloud-like flour onto my countertop and not care if it goes everywhere, because a mess of flour is a given the moment the genie is out of the vessel. Who am I to fight the fireworks of white pixie dust exploding in my kitchen, riding the breeze from the open window? I will let myself make mistakes, because it is only one moment in the history of bread. I will treasure what those mistakes teach me and hold the lessons close to my heart. I will knead and knead until my hands give out like every other bread maker’s before me.
When faced with a calamity that has taken so much from the world, I have to take a step back and remind myself of what is good. After all, there is yeast in my fridge, flour in my cupboard, and a long succession of bread makers standing behind me, rooting for my success.