The Venn of Dining

I type, this gray morning, with the heavy doors open. Cool air wafts in through the screens. Laundry chugs in the washer and fa-lumps in the dryer. The boyos are off on a tooth-cleaning expedition fifty miles away; they will stop for a nosh. I have butter softening for sour cream Bundt cake: a weekend treat.

And it’s a perfect day to bake something, and a perfect way to celebrate the end of a good week.

The Bundt cake is a fairly new addition to our family repertoire of ‘favorites.’ This recipe came from the Internet, from a very focused search. One day I realized we had sour cream in the fridge, and I remembered a cake I’d had at a meeting or an event. It was unadorned. The crust crackled like a sugar cookie. The inside was buttery, melting-tender.

If I’d remembered where I’d eaten that treat, I might have emailed a friend and begged the recipe. I could still hear the angels that sang as I ate that slice, but I couldn’t see where they did that singing. So I did a search and came up with many, many sour cream Bundt-style recipes.

Now we have sour cream Bundt coffee cake recipes that we have for special brunches, but this recipe—just a simple yellow Bundt cake that we don’t enhance with frosting or whipped cream or even a sprinkling of powdered sugar—has become an all-time, any time, favorite.

I think about that, and about the foods that come to be loved…by a person, by a family, by another kind of group. Those recipes slide into the personal cuisine, expanding, enhancing. I am thinking about where those recipes come from.

I am thinking that developing a personal cuisine (something we all do, no matter our circumstances) is a matter of Venn diagramming. The things that matter to us, foodwise, overlap.

In the intersect of people and circumstances dwell the foods we eat. If we are lucky enough that economics give us choices, it is an adventure to explore the places where our food loves overlap.

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When I lived alone, the Venn intersects were time and effort and save-ability. I remember making big pots of chili and freezing servings. I remember making a big, beautiful bowl of tuna salad and throwing most of it away. Cuisine for one morphs recipe size, (having grown up doubling, halving was a tough concept to grasp), and sometimes it morphs efforts.

How often do solitary persons, for instance, cook themselves a mashed potatoes and gravy dinner? Such Sunday dinner treats are often reserved for company; they’re not part of the everyday Venn.

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When you live in any kind of family, related or created, the Venn becomes an intersect of the personal tastes of those persons involved. For us, stir fries and fajitas and bubbling pots of macaroni and cheese, some stews and certain soups, reside firmly in the sweet spot. There are cookies in the intersect, and snacks, and fussy, delicious desserts.

Some personal favorites don’t make the cut. There are days when I long to make a big, cheesy, pea-studded tuna casserole, for instance, and I know Mark often yearns after a lovely gray dish of spaghetti and clam sauce.

I have not roasted up a big pot of pork and sauerkraut since Mark and I threw in together.

I have never fixed tripe.

James’ autism comes with definite food sensitivities, a hyper-sensitive sniffer, and a gag reflex; there are seemingly innocuous foods, like cucumber salad, that we avoid making when the boyo is around.

So we work within the intersect, and we find that leaves a lot of room.

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There are other intersects that affect the way we eat. There are history, geography, and capability, for instance.

The history can be personal. Kids believe the food they get at home is cooked the RIGHT way; everyone else’s food is suspect. Mark cooked a lot when he and very young Matthew were Two Guys Together; Matthew, when visiting his grandparents, would point out that they made meatloaf wrong. It was nothing like his father’s, and therefore, not regular meat loaf.

My mother would tell stories about my father’s young stepmother, Catherine,who’d never learned to cook. Catherine would throw a loaf of bread and packages of cold cuts on the table and call it dinner. Dad loved Mom’s cooking (which she, of course, Venn-ed to his meat and potatoes taste), but every once in a while, he purely loved a cold cut sandwich. It’s a treat for me, too, especially deli cold cuts on the kind of hard rolls so crusty they explode when you break them open. I remember those sandwiches from childhood.

That’s a culinary predilection that spans generations.

Mark’s parents, Pat and Ang, made the most extraordinary spaghetti sauce. His dad learned from his grandma, a famed cook; Pat and Ang cooked big pots of sauce together so often that they built on that fragrant base and developed a shared personal style.

When Mark and I first were together, we learned to make sauce from [canned] scratch, taking big cans of tomatoes and puree, tomato sauce and tomato paste, and simmering them together all day long. Often, meat went in there, too: we still use Angelo’s meatball recipe, and pork, Italian sausage, and chicken are all wonderful in long-simmered sauce.

But as canned and jarred spaghetti sauce became better and more available, Ang and Pat changed their methods. They would not—Pat would not, I’m sure, to this day—open a jar of Ragu and call it dinner. But they used a few cans of spaghetti sauce as a base, adding to it tomato paste and basil and oregano grown in the backyard, maybe some pureed fresh tomatoes, water, a handful of sugar, a  bay leaf, some onion…the actual concoction can vary from time to time, although the core remains.

There’s a history to that spaghetti sauce that flavors its creation. There’s a history to yeast-dough coffee cake on Easter morning, and to Grandma Kirst’s Christmas fudge.

Our personal pasts inform the food we eat today.

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But broader history and geography have their impacts, too. Take coffee, for instance (which I am often happy to do). Coffee drinking is pervasive in United States culture, as Marcus (at Marcus’s Tea Blog) points out in “Why Most Americans Drink Coffee Not Tea.” That, he ruminates, is due in large part to Revolutionary history; after the infamous Boston Tea Party, John Adams urged colonists to boycott tea. He called tea “a traitor’s drink,” and he started a movement. People in the budding United States pledged to drink coffee instead of tea, and those roots cemented java into U.S. culture.

In “Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?” Gracy Olmstead notes that coffee-drinking has become a community activity in the United States. She offers soldiers as an example; a lot of vets, she says, picked up their coffee-drinking habits in the service, where drinking coffee was a kind of daily ritual.

She herself, writes Olmstead, became a confirmed coffee drinker as a college student, when her roommates were very serious and very intense about the wonderful coffee they brewed.

So, I wait eagerly for my monthly coffee parcel to arrive; every morning, I grind my decaffeinated beans and revel in the rich and splendid scent. I might trace my coffee-enjoyment to growing up n my parents’ house, where the battered metal percolator stood always on the stove top; my mother would brew a pot at 9 pm or so to heat up in the morning, but it would smell so good she and my father would drink it, helped by whichever children were flitting through the house that evening.

Coffee is a part of my personal history, although not of Mark’s; we do not Venn there.

But coffee is a part of my national history and geography, too; my coffee predilection is made more likely by an act of rebellion that took place almost 300 years ago.

And coffee and tea both take conscious decision-making; they do not come from locally grown plants; they must be mindfully, sometimes expensively, imported.

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But other foods are local and abundant, and so they become part of our cuisine. We have just eaten the last of our summer’s crop of corn on the cob, for example; in Ohio, the long corn season means ears seared on the grill, boiled in a giant pot, or wrapped in wet cloth and nuked. Whichever way we choose to cook it, the ears are lambasted with butter and salt and pepper before teeth touch tender kernels.

We have corn roasts here. We learn to scrape ripe kernels from the cob and freeze them. When the season passes, we begin, already, to look forward to next year’s corn on the cob.

When I was in high school in Western New York, though, we had a Dutch exchange student. Her host family welcomed her with a corn roast. She opened the door to a rocky relationship by telling them, in very clear English and very decided terms, that corn was pig food, and she would not eat it.

The geography of that student’s cuisine told her one thing; our geography told us another. In that intersection, corn was not included in the Venn overlap.

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My mother, in so many ways a thrifty Scot, drew a line at some of the dishes her family cooked. She would talk about visiting her Aunt Barbara when that revered lady was cooking cow kidneys for steak and kidney pie. The house, Mom said, smelled exactly like pee.

She didn’t stay for Aunt Barbara’s dinner, and she never cooked kidney pie at home.  

It makes sense that a small island country like Scotland would lean toward cooking up every usable part of the cow, sheep, or pig. My mother was on board with the theory: she was a great believer in using up leftovers. But she didn’t subscribe to the practice of cooking with organ meat.

That thrift and caretaking did translate into US culture, though. We watch A Chef’s Life on PBS, a show that follows Chef Vivian Howard, who learned her trade in New York City, but went back (reluctantly at first) to her native North Carolina to ply it. She determined to honor the cuisine of her part of the country. When she travels to cook for august gatherings, she will often bring Tom Thumb sausage.

Tom Thumb sausage is made from pig parts, ground up and cooked in that poor pig’s appendix. The flavor, Howard says, is very distinctive.

In fact, we watched a show where she cooked for a hip New York City group; a food critic-type person, thrilled to be talking with her, said he loved the “gutty” flavor of the Tom Thumb sausage. Howard agreed that “gutty” was a good word for it.

Mark and I looked at each and shook our heads. Sausage stuffed into appendix is not in our Venn diagram, not by family or history, and not by geography either. We’ll pass, we agree, on trying Tom Thumbs.

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This week, though, paging through my big black binder of recipes I’ve saved to try someday, I came across one from a cookbook put together by Jim’s school when he was in second grade. It told how to cook a dessert that involved covering an Oreo cookie crumb crust with a cream cheese-peanut butter layer, a pudding layer, a Cool whip layer, and more ground cookie.

I just happened to have everything on hand that recipe called for. On a whim, I made it for a Monday night dessert.

You know what? That 23-year-old recipe yielded results that were mighty good. Mark and I immediately began thinking about Venn intersects.

The pasta club would love this, we agreed.

My extended family would enjoy it, I thought. Mark allowed that his would too.

We thought of several friends to whom we’d serve it, confident they’d approve.

We pondered that all week long, as we whittled away at that tasty dessert, which seem to settle in and become richer as time passed. Someday, the pandemic will be over, and we’ll be able to test our theories on the groups we think would like this newly discovered dessert.

Until then, though, it enters into that Venn slice, that intersect of Things We All Like.

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The boyos are home. James, who finished his math homework and started on some video game adventures in his downstairs man-cave, just came upstairs, wooed by the scent of sour cream coffee cake baking. When, he inquired, did I predict it might be done?

I shared the sad truth that this particular cake takes almost two hours to bake.

Ah, said Jim. Resigned, he trudged back downstairs.

I took Jim shopping yesterday, and he filled a small cart with things he loves—with frozen meals and a variety of chicken, with snacks, and drinks, and an ice cream treat or two. He bought a package of windmill cookies, not something easily found these days, for Mark; Jim doesn’t like those cookies but he enjoys treating his dad. And there are days when our dinner menu doesn’t appeal to him. Then Jim will happily fix his own dinner.

That Venn intersect shifts and changes, and that’s as it should be: the times dictate some likes and dislikes. Growth and discovery influence others.

But some things stay firmly in that intersect. Right now, sour cream coffee cake is one.

The Oh-So-Patient Baker

Patience is not the ability to wait, but how you act while you’re waiting.

                                                —Joyce Meyer

Mark and I agreed, finally, that a loaf of home-baked  bread would be a good thing for him to bring to an office-type holiday potluck. The hosts took care of meats and cheeses. Usually, Mark said, several people brought crock-pot meatballs, and others brought steaming pots of cheesy potatoes. Someone had signed up to bring a veggie pizza, another person was bringing a big tossed salad, and someone else was bringing a hot dip and chips. There was always, he sighed, such wonderful food, and so much of it.

So we decided that an apple streusel loaf would be a good thing, with a little tub of whipped-up butter; if there was leftover bread, Mark could take it back to his office for the next day’s breakfast.

The potluck was on Monday, so I set Saturday, which felt like the first full day of Christmas break, aside for baking. We got up and had a leisurely breakfast; we did the dishes and neatened up the house. Then the boyos loaded recycling baskets and bins into Mark’s car and headed off for haircuts and a tour of the Re-Store and maybe Home Depot, a visit to the recycling trailer, and the five-buck lunch at DQ.

I polished off my email and got ready to start baking.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 176735-i-wish-i-was-as-thin-as-my-patience.jpg
Image uploaded by Timfly

The apple streusel bread is what I’d call a picky recipe. First, I took the butter out to soften. I peeled and cored apples; I chopped them fine and tossed them, with a couple of tablespoons of flour, into a bowl. I measured out pecans and chopped those, too. They needed to be divided: two-thirds go in the bread itself. The rest goes into the topping.

I measured out milk and added lemon juice to sour it.

I got more measuring cups and scooped out flour and sugars; I gently nudged two eggs up against the meat slicer, far from the counter’s edge. I plucked spices from their cabinet. Finally, everything was lined up neatly, just like on a cooking show, and the milk had curdled and the apple had synthesized with its flour, and it was time to cook.

It took five or six minutes to cream the butter and sugar. I cracked the eggs and beat them in.  When that was fluffy, I started adding, alternately, the flour mixture and the curdled milk (How many alternations? I always wonder. The recipes never say, so I fall back on three, which seems like the perfect number; two would be abrupt. Four would have me adding pretty small amounts. But a little doubt always worms. Would the end result be better batter if I did alternate four times?)

When the batter was well mixed, I stirred in apple chunks and chopped pecans and spread it in the greased loaf pan.

Then I melted more butter (a nice, light treat, this is NOT) and mixed in cinnamon and brown sugar and more nuts and made a streusel to sprinkle over the top.

And at last, it was ready for the oven, where it would bake, long and slow, for at least 50 minutes.

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While it was baking, I took my book to the chair. The fire was snapping.

I was happy to read and wait.

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In 45 minutes, I started testing the bread, every five minutes or so, with a toothpick. It took a long time for the little wooden pick to emerge batter free.  When the bread was finally done, I took it out and let it rest for five minutes on the cooling rack.

There was a time when I could not have waited those five minutes, when I would have had to pull that bread from the loaf pan and make sure all was unburned, perfectly formed, well baked. I have learned a little restraint over the years, and I have learned that manipulating freshly baked bread can be to manhandle and deform it.

So I listened to the recipe’s voice, and I waited the requisite time.

There was a time, too, when—if the bread hadn’t been baked as a dish to pass in the first place—I would have grabbed a hefty cleaver and whacked off a big, hot slice, unable to wait to taste it. This recipe cautions me not to do that. This recipe says to wrap the cooled loaf and let it rest a day before slicing.

This recipe wants me to be patient.

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We have our traditional Christmas recipes…Italian chocolate balls (the kind with cloves and cinnamon and chocolatey glaze; I use a healthier recipe than the one that calls for a tub of pure lard, even though the flavor’s probably not quite on the mark); shortbread cut-outs; Grandma Kirst’s famous fudge. And every year we try something new to see if that unknown, cutting-edge recipe might become a keeper, too.

This fall, I kept seeing recipes for a Twix-like cookie; I downloaded one from Pinterest and showed it to the boyos. There’s a shortbread crust that we’d cut into rounds. That’s topped with melted caramel, and THAT is topped with melted chocolate.

Maybe, said Mark, we could make the shortbread in bars rather than circles…

I stocked up on the necessary ingredients, and Saturday, after the bread was cooling, I began.

If I thought the bread begged my patience, I wasn’t quite prepared for the patience needed for the Twix bar cookies. I started them early in the afternoon, softening butter once again.

When the butter was ready to play nicely with the flour and confectioner’s sugar, I put them all into the Mixmaster bowl and blended them together. I pulled the mat from the drawer, floured it, and clumped out half the shortbread dough on top. I rolled it out, and sliced it into rows, and then cut across, making approximately Twix-sized pieces. Some of the pieces, of course, were ragged and edgy.

I used the long metal flipper and arranged the cookies on a baking sheet while the oven was heating.

Then: roll out the rest of the dough and repeat.

While the cookies baked, I washed up dishes and pulled out big flat platters. As the sheets came out of the oven with their golden-brown cargo, I relayed the baked cookies to the trays.

Boyos wandered out to the kitchen, drawn by the buttery, bakery smells. I limited them to the ragged edgy pieces. They did not complain.

Let the cookies cool completely, the recipe says, and so I reluctantly found some housework to do while I waited.

Later, James and I drizzled caramel, melted slowly over a medium flame, onto the bars. And then we waited yet again for that oozey caramel to set, and then, finally, we could pour melted milk chocolate over the top.

I finished the last step of those constructed cookies at about ten on Saturday night, and then (although some people would ignore this injunction), I had to let them sit overnight so they’d be ready to eat. (DO NOT, the recipe tells me, put these cookies in the fridge. The chocolate will discolor.)

I washed up the chocolatey bowl and spoon and spreading knife, looking longingly at the cookies, but pulled patience into play. I grabbed my book and headed to bed.

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Patience. Images of saintly, glowing faces, touched by beams of golden ethereal light, waiting.  Those saintly folk–well, their waiting is not ragged or fragmented by furious longing. It’s serene and uncluttered, a long, slow, melting process. They do not become agitated or frustrated. They’re patient.

Their patience and my patience are very, very different.

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“Do you really DO that?” I remember an old friend asking. I was reading a recipe that said I should chill the dough before baking the cookies. I might have been 25, and NO, I did not do that.

I added a little flour if the dough was too sticky, and I baked those cookies, right then.

But later, when years had passed, I discovered there was recompense in following the directions. The cookies, once made, had a better texture if chilled instead of flour-added.

And during the waiting period, I got all the mixing clean-up done. The work area, for the actual scooping and baking portion of the exercise, sparkled like a cooking show kitchen.

The act of baking wasn’t a fast endurance test; it was a progressive event, with breaks and books and visits thrown in between.

That kind of patience, I can cook with.

There are other things to cook, though, that cannot be broken into segments to be parceled out.

I have a friend, for instance, who cannot make fudge or candy—the kind where the recipe says to bring the mixture to a hard boil, and then boil for five minutes exactly, or boil until the sweet syrupy concoction reaches the hard ball stage or until it reaches a certain number of degrees Fahrenheit. My friend just cannot wait. She will turn up the heat and boil the sticky mess FASTER; she will bring a glass of cold water to the stove, drizzle syrup into it, and convince herself that the result,  a soft, dissolving mush, is in reality a hard ball.

And then she’ll pour the bubbling mess into a buttered pan where it will never, ever set. (It will become, though, a delicious ice cream topping.)

And she’ll bemoan the fact. “I did exactly what the recipe said!” she’ll wail, although, no, of course, she did not.

I can hear one of my elders’ voices, smug and starched and wafering up from a stern childhood memory: You left out the most important ingredient. You left out PATIENCE.

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Why does it seem so many people are in a fiery hurry to just get finished? I wonder if there’s some atavistic urging in us, sense memories from our long-ago pasts, that push against patient waiting.

I ponder, for instance, two theories I read about how dogs and humans came to be domestically intertwined. The first theory,–the one we humans like best, I think,–says that dogs began to follow tribes of man in prehistory, and that, when man left the remnants of a meaty dinner, dogs would swarm in and gnaw on the leftover meat and bones. And then they’d fight to protect their benefactors.

The other theory is just the opposite…that hungry little knots of people followed herds of dogs and grabbed up the leftovers from the DOGS’ feast. I have a shivering little picture of this, of fragile, vulnerable, pock-fleshed humans creeping out to the bone pile while the dogs snored. I see those people pinching away bones that had shreds of meat left clinging. But other carnivores may have followed that dog pack, too, so those starving people were always glancing behind, ready to scarper.

“Hurry up! Hurry UP!” I imagine them thinking. “Let’s get out of here before the big cats come back…”

An argument, for sure, for getting in there, taking care of business, and disappearing. Who CARED that the cooking process wasn’t started, much less finished? Eat and run, baby; eat and run.

If that kind of experience was true for our ancestors, it wouldn’t make for much hard-wired patience.

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I had a friend once who lived in trying straits. Everything that adds up to balance in a life—love and family, job and material well-being, spirit and hope and bodily health, all those things of hers—had tatters and rends in them. She could not cut a break, could not reach a place where she could say, “Well, at least I have a warm place to stay,” because that was the week the landlord let her know the kids were moving back to town, and, so sorry, but could she be out by February?

And this dear friend would pray for patience.

And more awful things would happen, stretching the boundaries of her already taut-enough-to-snap endurance to its very, very edges.

Finally, she went to a trusted spiritual advisor and said, What the hell?

And he had her explain what she was doing and what kinds of things were happening, and when he understood the whole situation, he said to her, “Well this is easy. Stop praying for patience.”

My friend told me she sputtered and ranted. She NEEDED to learn patience she said, because all these trying things kept happening.

And her advisor begged to differ. She needed to stop asking to learn because otherwise, she’d keep getting sent opportunities for the learning to take place.

Oh, she said.

She started praying for wisdom instead, and the patience-threatening events slowed down to a manageable trickle.

And she never, she admitted freely, acquired that golden, saintly, waiting glow. She endured the things that bid her be patient; she smoked and cussed and sometimes poured herself a big glass of scotch, forget the rocks. She complained, but she got through.

My kind of patience, I’m afraid, is a lot like THAT kind, with a little more whining thrown in.

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It’s good to have the value of the virtue demonstrated in sweetly tangible ways…in the delicious course of a recipe, for instance. If only I can truly embrace the metaphor: clamp my mouth shut when I’m anxious to finish someone’s sentence; take my time when a scattered driver changes his mind about turning and forges on ahead, upsetting my personal driving plans (I often wonder what’s on that person’s mind. He might just NOT be an eejit; he might have just gotten bad news, for instance, and wouldn’t I feel terrible if I added to that with a thoughtless gesture?); ignore the cranky shopper who shoves ahead of me triumphantly at the check-out. LISTEN, really listen, when someone is talking.

Let’s hope that, in human interactions, too, I have learned a little restraint over the years, learned that manipulating words and responses too quickly in relationship can be to manhandle and deform them.

But you know, I don’t always remember my own injunctions. And sometimes, I have to be patient with MYSELF.

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It is a season, this Advent time, this Christmastide, with lessons in patience built in. Remember the sleepless nights of sugar plum childhood? Remember the sleepless nights of founding the feast? Remember the sleepless nights of loss and yearning?

All of them, all of those hard-to-make-it-through scenarios, are magnified in the anticipation of a special holiday.

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So I bake. And I chill the dough and wait for the loaf to cool and remember that three people don’t need twelve dozen cookies; I don’t need to turn the kitchen into a frantic, frenetic, flour-dappled Keebler tree.

And, I hope that, even at this advanced age, I learn; I hope that, even if the golden light sluicing down reveals my knotted eyebrows and a grimace, I am acquiring patience, one cookie, one Christmas, and one circumstance, at a time.

Fare and Loafing in Ohio

The art of bread making can become a consuming hobby, and no matter how often and how many kinds of bread one has made, there always seems to be something new to learn. —Julia Child

Bread 2

 I sit in an old school gymnasium—now occasionally a staging area for a landscape contractor—on a rainy Saturday morning. I was here yesterday, too. I am helping a talented young mother, Melissa, who coordinated this indoor yard sale event to benefit a support group for young people with disabilities. Melissa rounded up an amazing assortment of donations; she pulled together volunteers to set up, staff the sale, and tear it down; and she arranged for all the leftover items to be donated and delivered to a shelter for women and children in crisis.

Now there are two more hours until the sale ends, but already, we have raked in over $700.00—all pure profit, all of it going to the young people’s group. And the doors open, and another round of avid shoppers pours in. I shake my head and marvel at Melissa.

I marvel, too, at the bread machine—marked at a mere five dollars and looking untouched/brand-new—that keeps beckoning me, and that no one has even glanced at. I get up and go over, again, to look at it, to run my hands over its sleek sides, to pull out the baking pan and twitch the paddle around.

Once we had a bread machine very much like this one.

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We jumped on the bread machine bandwagon when they first appeared, somewhere around the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. The boyos, I think, got me one for Christmas, and at least once a week, I would layer ingredients into the bread pan, slide the bread pan securely into the machine, and set the timer. Then I would wake the next morning to the smell of baking bread; I would waft out of bed on those steamy aromatic tendrils, float downstairs to start the coffee, and, hands safely hot-mitted, I would pull the pan from the machine at the first ‘ding’ of doneness.

I’d dump the golden-crusted loaf onto the wooden chopping board and gingerly, at knife-point, pry out the mixing paddle. Then we would slice and eat the bread, spread thick with melting butter.

What breakfast could be better than that? It didn’t even matter that the middle slices had paddle-shaped holes right in their very centers.

We burned through at least three bread machines in a decade. The first summer after Mark went back to school, he didn’t work outside the home. He and Jim, who was eight or so at the time, spent long lazy summer days together. They swam, and they mowed, and they walked in the creek; they took rides to the supermarket and the hardware store; they went to visit grandpa and grandma. They went to the library, and they took breaks to read amazing books. They cleaned, and they fixed, and they cooked.

And just about every night, when I came home from work, Mark would proudly decant a wonderful loaf of bread from the bread machine. He’d change it up, too: sometimes he’d set the machine to proffer a loaf of cinnamon bread for my breakfast. Sometimes he used the machine to make a batch of pizza dough. Sometimes, he’d mix up some French bread dough in the bread machine, and then shape it himself, baking it on a cookie sheet in a hot, hot oven. The crust would snap lustily, exploding luscious crumbs; the inside of the loaf would be soft and elastic, full of holes that begged to be filled with melting butter.

It wasn’t long after that summer that we moved, and the last of our bread machines sputtered out of usefulness. When we went looking for a replacement, we discovered they were no longer ubiquitous. In fact, they’d become downright hard to find.

And there was a wonderful bakery in our small town…

We gave up on the bread machine and began to buy our bread.

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But my stomach rumbles, just from the memories of those steamy, comforting loaves of long ago. I give Melissa a five-dollar bill. During a lull, I lug the bread machine out to my car.

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Once, when I was pretty little, I made a batch of wonderful bread dough, and I got myself into trouble. I don’t think I was more than seven; I probably had brought one of those kids’ cookbooks home from the library—the kind of cookbooks that said, right up front, Kids, always check with a parent before trying any of these projects. And always have a grown-up with you if you are using sharp knives or a hot oven!

 But I was already, at that tender age, of the “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” persuasion. And so I helped myself to ingredients and tools, and I mixed up a batch of bread dough, shaped it into sweet little buns on a battered old cookie sheet, and I baked them in a 350 degree oven.

I remember a few things about that yeasty roll experience.

I remember that the rolls were GOOD…the outsides golden brown and dusted with flour, and only here and there a grubby fingerprint. (Ah!!! I smacked myself in the head. You’re supposed to WASH YOUR HANDS first!) I pulled them apart; the middles were steamy and yielding. I spread them with butter, and they were amazing.

I think that was the first time I’d ever had homemade bread. I was stunned by the comforting revelation.

I remember the pride I felt: who says a kid can’t cook?

And then, of course, I remember the yelling and the spanking. Probably I had left a messy, messy kitchen; probably I had used too much of the flour that was reserved for cookies and pies and gravy thickening. The budget was tight, back then, leaving little room for childish experimentation.

Certainly, arguing for the wonders of surprise, I had not asked permission. But I remember being shocked at being punished; I hid in the back hall, afterward, behind the coats and on top of the pile of burlap bags the potatoes came in; I hid with my indignant tears and the last of my beautiful rolls.

The recipe probably only made a half dozen. In defiance, unjustly berated and beaten, I winkled all of them out of the kitchen, and I methodically ate each one.

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Perhaps the God of Wheat was appalled at my youthful gluttony, because that was the last time my bread efforts came out light and airy. Until the bread machine arrived, my attempts at homemade bread were hard and flat and heavy.

I tried making bread, but my loaves could prop open heavy doors. I tried making pizza crust, and the boyos threw it at each other. When they hit their mark, it HURT.

How I envied people who had the knack of making bread with exploding, crunchy crust and tender, softly chewy, innards.

My father-in-law, Angelo, talked about his mother—whom everyone, no matter the generation, called ‘Ma,’—and her Saturday bread-baking. Ma would bake enough bread to last her hungry family for a week, and a little extra, which she would pat onto big cookie sheets. She made sauce on Saturdays, too, and lunch would be homemade pizza, with Ma’s yeasty, incredible crust.

I could picture Mark’s grandma’s hands, capably, almost nonchalantly, kneading and shaping the dough, as she calmly talked to one of her many kids, maybe helping him wrestle out a problem as she wrestled the bread dough into shape. That’s what I wanted—that competence, that nurturing ability…all the wonderful sustenance that a maker of bread provides.

And still, the dough I made puffed up briefly, then sank heavily  into itself.

Bread was the stuff of life. And I didn’t make homemade bread; I made homemade bricks.

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And isn’t bread-making one of the ways that other mothers,–better mothers than I am–since time immemorial, showed their families they cared? And how long ago is time immemorial anyway?

So I get on line to read about the history of bread.

History.com (see link below) tells me that, far back in prehistory, humans were mixing grain and liquid in an oatmeal-ly kind of concoction. That morphed into a paste that, spread out thickly onto a hot, flat rock, would produce a flatbread. Lots of cultures still treasure their flatbreads, of course—their pitas and naans and tortillas, for instance.

But leavening: that takes the concept of bread to—oh, gosh, I’ll just say it—to a whole different level. And the most-often preferred leavening agent, yeast, floats in the air. History.com posits that some must have floated down into an early human’s bowl of bread dough, and then, by golly, didn’t that bread rise?

And didn’t those prehistoric diners say, “Wow! Isn’t this great?”

(The yeast, they probably did not know, gobbles up the sugars in the dough. Then it excretes CO2, creating airy pockets in the resulting dough. Belching bacteria bubble up our bread???)

As far back as 300 years before the Common Era began, professional bakers were turning out hundreds of loaves daily in Egypt’s earliest commercial kitchens.

The family of man has valued its bread, and broken its bread together, for a long, long time.

And then, of course, there are sandwiches. PBS.org shares the story of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who in the late 1700’s had spent a rigorously exhausting 24 hours at cards. He was famished but couldn’t leave the table. So, the legend goes, he, or his cook, slapped some cooked meat between two slices of bread, and he ate as he played.

PBS (link below) has some doubts about the actual veracity of the legend, but certainly, sandwiches did come into their popularity just about the time of John Montagu’s marathon card game.

And some sweet mama, some GOOD baker mama, probably made the bread.

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And then came the day my doctor urged me to give up gluten. My doctor, although she has a child who has graduated from college, looks as if she is about 16…which, coincidentally is probably the number of inches that her waist measures. Clearly, she knows whereof she speaks, and I sadly went home and booted gluten from my diet. I bought spaghetti squash (which we found quite tasty), and I bought pasta made from rice (which we did not.) I discovered that there is a huge gluten-free industry, and I discovered, too, that usually I would rather just go without than try to savor a gluten-free substitute.

I freed myself from gluten all of a long fall, and I found, to my surprise, that my joints ached less. I should have lost weight, too, but I consoled myself for loss of bread with milkshakes and dark chocolate bars.

And then Christmas came, and I churned out Christmas cookies, and I decided that no ONE, not even the tiny doctor I so respect, was going to tell me that, at Christmas, I couldn’t have a Scottish shortbread cookie, golden brown around the edges, sweet and buttery.

And so I did have one cookie…I had one cookie many times over, and by the time the season ended, I had fallen off the gluten free wagon with a loud and resounding SPLAT.

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Thank goodness, cooler heads, if given time, always seem to prevail. Embarked, as I am, on a daily walking regimen, I have also given up most eating between meals and most baked sweet treats. Once again, my joints ache less. My energy is soaring. And perhaps…oh, I dare to hope…my clothes are feeling a little bit roomier.

I eat a lot of salads, a lot of soups, and nice stir fries. I like them, too.

Considering the whole picture, considering that I am married to a man of Italian extraction and that one of last year’s favorite Christmas gifts was a pricey pasta maker, and considering our unhappy reactions to the substitutes we’ve tried, I slid wheat pasta back into our diet. We don’t eat it every day, but we do have it, maybe, once a week. I never have more than one helping. My joints don’t seem to suffer.

And, oh, we savor those servings.

I eat my nutty nuggets (which have wheat bran in them. Is there gluten in wheat’s bran? Probably…) for breakfast. I concoct great protein-laced salads for lunch.

And once in a while, I mix up a batch of seven-grain dough in the bread machine. Today for lunch, Mark (who is in the middle of a very challenging legal project) and I had big bowls of leftover chicken corn chowder. On the side, we had thick sandwiches, sliced cheddar melting into its milder American cousin, all held together by thin slices of dense, homemade seven grain bread, grilled to a hot and satisfying crunch.

Dinner will be roasted chicken and veggies. I may not have another slice of bread for many days.  But once in a while, I realize, once in a while, I need me a slice of bread.

And it’s so much better if the bread I eat on those occasions is made at home, with fresh ingredients and no preservatives, bread I mixed up in my handy machine, and maybe, baked or shaped by hand. The comfort is there; bread’s history, after all, is a long history of comfort and sustenance.

I am, for real and for true, a very much gluten-reduced individual, but on occasion, I indulge. And thanks to my five-dollar bread machine, the bread I make for those rare times is bread that’s worth the eating.

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https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bread

http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-sandwich/