Thursday, April 21, 2011

Baked Memories

In the 1940s, every household made its own bread products. Mom always tried to make enough to last a week, but sometimes if she had figured wrong, she'd hand me 12 cents and send me off to the store for what she called "that fluffy, junky, worthless stuff the grocers called bread." My sisters and I always loved it because it was such a change from the hearty home made bread we ate every day. And while we informed mom that we thought store bread was a treat, she scoffed at the price. Bad enough, she said, that gasoline had risen to 15 cents a gallon. She sure wasn't paying almost the same amount for a useless loaf to store bread. 

Growing up in a small farm community in southern Minnesota had a lot of pluses. Everyone knew everyone else, the names of their kids, how old they were, and in all probability, the names of their cats and dogs. My sisters and I could play in the front yard without mom coming to check on us every two minutes, walk into town by ourselves--even at night, and go trick or treating without having to let mom rummage through our goody bag to scout out unwrapped cookies or brownies or apples.

But the greatest plus that small community had going for it was the fact that every woman in it knew how to bake. And the champ of them all was my mom.

She bought flour in 50 pound bags, rendered and canned her own lard, and raised chickens just for their eggs. A man with a horse-drawn wagon delivered our milk. Ice for our icebox came the same way--only vicious-looking tongs were involved. The milk came in bottles whose neck was filled with thick cream; the ice kept it fresh, waiting for the one day a week when mom would open her flour bin and begin the mystical process of turning flour, lard, eggs, and cream into something so delicious it would imprint itself on my memory forever. Fresh baked bread.

We three sisters never knew which day would be baking day. We'd head off to school, paying no  attention to whether we'd just finished the last loaf of bread or dusted off the last bite of cinnamon roll. Kids never think about things like that. Moms have to.

The fragrance hit my sisters and me about 5 feet from the front door. Bread. It was baking day. It might seem silly in this day of computers, IPods and Smart Phones, but baking day was our favorite day of the week. We all knew what awaited us inside the house. There, in our large, rectangular kitchen, laid out on all manner of clean white dishcloths, would be bread: loaves, cinnamon buns, parker house rolls, pecan rolls, bread rings and sticky buns. Sometimes the bounty spilled over into the adjacent dining room, depending on whether mom felt like doing a big batch or a huge batch.

My sisters and I knew exactly where to look for our after-school allotment. Whoever got there first was the lucky one. My middle sister and I could vanquish a pan of cinnamon rolls in less time than it takes to tell. Bread Heaven. That's what we were in. Most times we'd chomp up the best of the best, leaving little sister with the plain rolls. She was happy with that for she knew no better. Then came the day mom asked her (in our presence) how she had liked the cinnamon rolls. When she replied that there were no cinnamon rolls, mom's accusing eyes turned immediately in our direction. That was the day rules were laid down. We had to leave some of everything for little sis. From then on it didn't seem so important to head home immediately after school let out. The privilege of rank was gone.

As I grew older I learned to make bread. Good bread. Maybe even great bread. Somewhere along the way of getting married and raising a family, bread baking fell by the wayside. By the time I was a seasoned grandma, I took up bread baking again. No sisters to help me eat a pan of cinnamon rolls this time, but hubby Jim was always up to the task. I'd brew up a pot of fresh coffee, set the plate of steaming sticky buns between us, and tried not to moan as we ate.

Jim had the biggest sweet tooth of anyone I've ever known. Problem was, he could eat anything he wanted and never gain weight. That was something I took personally. When I met him, right out of the navy, he weighed in at 140 lbs. and stood a smidgen under 6 feet.  Along the way, he ate his way up to 165 and never ventured above that for the rest of his life. I always thought that was obscene.

A little aside: bread baking is looked upon as being extremely difficult. Almost a mystery. It isn't. While mom mixed and kneaded all her bread by hand, I use my food processor and get the job done in three blinks of an eye. With the new quick rising yeasts, coming up with loaves of bread is no longer a day-long job. After my husband could no longer work due to the progressing Parkinson disease, I went back to making my own bread. All things considered, each loaf cost about 50 cents. With today's price for flour, it will likely be about 75 cents. My bread is healthier, has no preservatives, and can be frozen and thawed without changing texture. I have a fail safe recipe for beginners, just in case you're interested. I've taught many people to make this recipe and am always thrilled to see the huge smile on their face when it comes out of the oven. They couldn't believe what they had accomplished and how easy it had been.

Copyright by Sandra L Keith, 2011. All rights reserved

Bread photo courtesy of MS Word clip art
Husband photo is the property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission

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