The center of our family life during the eighteen years I called that place home was the kitchen table. Presiding over that table was my mother. She was short in stature, just an inch or two over five feet, but a presence none-the-less.
The kitchen and the table were her domains. It was here that she baked the bread, planned the meals, lectured her children, reprimanded her husband, and provided sustenance for her brood of three children.
There are memorable meals, etched in my taste buds that I will never forget. Simple things like bread pudding with an orange sauce that, try as I might, I can not quite duplicate. There were the Sunday afternoons in the midst of winter when we, as a family, made pasties. Meat pies from the mining culture in upper Michigan were made at least two times a month. We made them for the Sunday evening meal, we made them to be frozen and used for my father’s lunch at “The Mill” where he toiled running a lathe to provide for his wife and his children.
There were the highlight meals: a Thanksgiving Day feast with fresh rolls made early in the morning; the turkey, methodically basted; and pies, always pies, pumpkin and apple and mincemeat. There was the New Year’s Day ham and the endless off shoot meals: pea soup, and ham and scalloped potatoes. There were the endless array of cookies for the Christmas season and the ritual of the fruitcake, made in early October, soaked in brandy, wrapped in cheesecloth and stored in tins used only for this nearly sacred storage.
All of these culinary family traditions were presided over by my mother, recipes carefully consulted, historically annotated over several decades and changed only when something new and different was approved by the “general of the kitchen.” There were other times and other meals: potato salad for the 4th of July, cabbage rolls (roly polies) and dozens of different cookies and sweet breads for various times over the course of the yearly rhythm of life.
But the weekly baking of bread was perhaps the most memorable. The bread: whole wheat, white, oatmeal, or raisin, varied during the year, but the baking day was always the same, Monday. It followed the washing of clothes and leaked into the late morning and early afternoon. During the summer heat, the timetable changed and bread was baked in the early morning.
The dough carefully crafted, left to rise, kneaded and put in the bread pans. The oven heated to the proper temperature, receiving the sacred offerings and baked to a golden brown. The pans were removed and lined up on the counter and the thin glaze of butter rubbed on the top of each loaf to make it crisp and shine. Each loaf and each action a bit of sacred family liturgy and the liturgist was my mother, and bread baking was a sacred act.
As a child I couldn’t wait until the bread cooled. I had to have a fresh slice cut and slathered with butter. The smell and the taste warm bread and the butter in my mouth were overwhelming.
Baking bread was the beginning ritual of each week. It centered the family and provided for the rest of the week, the taste and smell of yeast and flour, as we toasted the bread and made sandwiches, and sometimes just had a piece with butter. Each loaf was a means by which we celebrated my mother’s kitchen and her presence as the commander in chief of what we ate and how we ate. The taste and smells our family life together were centered at the kitchen table and the baking of bread.
Sure, there were stories and there was conversation around the table, but what stands out most in my memory are her hands:
A measuring cup, and flour poured,
easily placed in a bowl, not just any bowl,
her bread bowl. Her hands hovering over
the bowl like a magician performing
a conjuring trick, with the simple ingredients
of flour and water.
Then the yeast, salt and just a touch of sugar
mixed and molded, brought together to
form the dough, and then the magic of the rising.
There is always the ingredient of time,
any cooking or baking needs time and
time allows the hands to work, the dough
is covered to allow time its place in the process
The rising and then once again the dough
is deflated and more time is requested
and the hands work again, forming and shaping
the water and the flour, the yeast and the sugar,
then the new form is placed into the aged
and dented pans, given shape and identity
with years of use, the aging metal
covered with years of use.
The hands work again and the bread cloths
cover the pans and rising takes place again
and the hands are at rest waiting.
The hands, a bit weathered and aged
with years of use, and marked with the burns
of hot bread turned out on the bread boards
with the hot tins burning small kisses
into the process, remaining as small white
scars on the those hands.
Now the hands that made the dough,
the hands that kneaded the dough
the hands that covered the bread and let
it rise again and again, take the knife
and cut the bread, serve the bread,
butter the bread and placed it on a plate
before a small boy’s wondering eyes
and then there was the taste.
Now the hands hold a coffee cup
and the bread has been provided,
the job of the hands is now done
and the eyes smile as the cup is raised
and the bread done, eaten, tasted,
brought by the hands, she drinks her coffee toast.
So write a story. Write a story about family, food, or meals. Write a story about your mother, or the hands of someone you love or loved. Let your mind remember and imagine, and then “write on.”