The magic of bread making lasts through the ages
Bread-making day, Mychal Wilmes says, was reassurance that all was right with the world. Now he is working to learn the magic of his mother's recipes.
Yeast, warm milk, and flour created magic on weekly bread making days. The dough that spilled over the large kettle yielded loaves, buns, and fry bread. Bread-making day, which took place once a week, was reassurance enough that all was right with the world.
Long ago in southern Germany when summers were humid and hot, small-town folk carried raw dough to an outdoor community brick oven, where they waited their turn to bake. There was no sense heating up their houses, and the gathering place was great for visiting.
When wars came and food was short, flour was replaced with sawdust. It added no nutrient, but filled bellies and provided a sense of normality in a world that had gone mad.
Life, as it was in pre-war times had largely been unchanged for decades. The herder responsible for leading the town folks' pigs to the forest and bring them back to their pens in the afternoon was as dependable as the sunset.
History wasn’t important as we watched loaves emerge from the oven and be dressed in melted butter. While the bread cooled, we waited for her to make fry bread in a cast iron frying pan filled with snow-white lard. For those unfamiliar, dry bread dough was shaped into something that resembled a hot dog bun or long john.
Fry bread was best rolled in sugar or hollowed out and filled with strawberry or raspberry jam. Her youngest son ate it beyond full. However, he was less impressed with the sliced bread that contained summer sausage that he carried to school.
The Wonder bread that other students feasted on during lunch was soft and perfectly sliced. It was strange when some classmates willingly traded two butter-and-jelly sandwiches for just one of mine. Nonetheless, I wanted to eat school lunches and not bring mine from home.
Complaints about other classmates feasting on canned beef, mashed potatoes, and cake reached Mother’s ears. We settled on a compromise that would give me what I wanted.
A student hired to wash cafeteria dishes and clean tables at lunch not only got paid but also ate for free. Mother thought it foolish to spend 25 cents daily for lunch. Before the deal was struck, Mother insisted my pay would be donated to church charity as a lesson in sharing.
Pushing dishes through a washer is hot and tiresome, and the smell of hamburger hotdish lingered on wet shirts well into the afternoon. A new deal was struck. In return for doing a better job of beating the dirt from braided rugs and gathering eggs, I would be given 25 cents a week from the coins kept in an old sugar jar for a favorite on the school menu.
The best — homemade sliced bread — can easily be taken for granted. My sister is an excellent bread maker with the assistance of Mother’s neatly recorded black recipe book. Kathy, knowing that I sought to recreate what once existed, purchased a bread baking machine that promised loaves just like mothers used to make. The machine underdelivered on its impossible promise.
With plenty of winter on my hands, I’ve resolved to making bread. My sister says the key is taking good care of the yeast.
“It’s not all that hard to do,’’ said she, who has already mastered the art.
Making bread is not and should not be that easy. When we were children, the minutes seemed to last a mighty long time before the fry bread was lifted from the lard and a loaf cooled enough to be cut and covered in melting butter.
Mother seemed happiest when her apron and hair were dusted with flour. Bread making, she said, is mentioned several times in the Bible and included in the Lord’s Prayer.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.