My daughter once remarked, while lunching with a group of my colleagues, that she was a “cheeseatarian.” She fits the description…sneaking cheese at any opportunity while I am cooking, and willingly passing up any and all other sources of protein for her favorite dairy delicacy if she can get away with it. I, on the other hand, could easily achieve “breadatarian” status since there is no loaf of bread I dislike, no grain I do not adore, no yeasty and crusty loaf of goodness I do not crave. Bread is equally fond of my waist, it would seem, but the love affair between us continues nevertheless and is sure to last a lifetime.
Since I have also been blogging for my faith community today on the theme of “Our Daily Bread” I have been giving my beloved favorite food group quite a bit of thought. Tonight, I am recalling three treasured bread stories that not only filled my stomach but also touched my heart and radiated small points of light along my path. Let us break bread together…
Course One: Holy Pita, Breadman
These days, the pita is considered a fairly normal staple of the bread aisle. While I may visit the Lebanese bakery for some favorite high quality loaves, in a pinch I can easily snag some pocket bread at the Kroger on the corner. But, in the 1970’s in my little corner of upstate New York, the pita was a strangely unfamiliar, ethnic curiosity.
One summer when I was young, my family was in the midst of some challenging financial times. I was too young to know why…and smart enough to know it was not my place to ask. But, it was clear that we were pinching pennies more than usual, and relying heavily on what we could grow, glean, or get our hands on cheaply for our meals. Bread was an expense we were doing without, particularly store bought bread. Occasional jiffy mix biscuits or corn bread would emerge. There was always enough food, just not necessarily enough of what I would have liked.
One day, my Dad’s friend Bernie showed up at the door. Like my Dad, Bernie sold auto parts and helped fix cars part time. They focused on different car parts…Dad on driveshafts, Bernie on mufflers…so they were colleagues and friends rather than competitors. Times were tough all over, so Bernie had taken on a bread delivery route for some extra money. He stopped by one summer evening…an evening where I have since learned we were getting to a precarious place in the family food supply…to bring a box filled with day old bread set for destruction so that we could freeze it up and make use of it. It was an enormous box filled with pita bread. I remember Bernie having a smile and a gleam on his face. He said we were helping him by taking bread he couldn’t sell off his hands. But, I knew that this gift of pita was like manna in the wilderness, a gift of daily bread from a daily friend.
What I remember most about the summer of pita was how versatile we became in our pita preparation, although it was completely unknown to us at the time. Pita was our breakfast toast spread with the strawberry jam we had made that spring, our lunch sandwich stuffed with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber from the garden, our dinner time wrap for hunks of grilled bologna and mustard that had been secured at surplus pricing. I grew weary of the bologna, but not the pita. It is still a staple of my life. When I see stacks of pita in the store, I sometimes think of Bernie the Breadman, our family friend, and the huge box of pita he bestowed on us exactly when we needed it most. Sometimes, even now, when I kneel at the alter and receive the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven I am reminded anew that I am taking in the divine gifts of pita and grace, intertwined. Truly, we are breaking Holy Bread.
Course Two: Stuffing
It was usually mid-October when she started the preparation. My Gramma would lay the dining room table with cookie sheets, cooling racks placed on top of each. From each loaf of bread she made or bought, the crusts and a few extra slices would be removed and cut into squares. The squares would be placed in single layers on the racks for several days until they were dry as bones, then added by handfuls to the re-purposed bread bags that hung in the back pantry, awaiting their destiny as a part of our family Thanksgiving feast.
Given my love of bread, it should come as no surprise that stuffing was…and is…my favorite Thanksgiving side dish. Looking back, I am convinced that Gramma’s stuffing was flavored not only with her seasonings, sausage, and sage…but also anticipation. No stuffing has ever come close to compare with her recipe, though every year I try. Those October bread cubes were the beginning of her planning, her preparation, her own anticipation of the family feast that spanned multiple tables, multiple generations, and multiple rooms of her farm house. The anticipation of Thanksgiving and the bread that we would share together, that we still share together in family stories and memories that transcend time and miles.
Course Three: The Loaf
I never require my students to attend class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break. This is because of the great Hand Turkey Rebellion of 2000, of which I was a primary instigator along with my two friends Melinda and Toni. We normally had our PhD seminar in data analysis on Wednesday afternoons and, not wanting the Thanksgiving holiday to interfere with doctoral preparation, the course was moved to the morning rather than cancelled. This nearly caused me to miss the last flight home to see my family and partake in my Gramma’s favorite family holiday which would have been entirely unacceptable. Given that social workers are a self-advocating lot, we tried to plead our case but we were unsuccessful. So, instead, we planned a feast.
Let it be known that three 30-something social work professionals who chose to leave the productive professional workforce to go back to graduate school should never be underestimated, in spite of a lack of cash flow. We were determined to help the international members of our cohort understand the true meaning and rich history (good, bad, and ceremonial) of American Thanksgiving. We critically analyzed what we loved about the occasion and determined that shared abundance and distributive justice were at the root of the holiday. And so, we made a morning feast of coffee and cider and pumpkin muffins and my contribution…a giant loaf of cranberry nut bread baked in the expanding loaf pan I was given by Franziska, the Swiss exchange student who had spent a year with our family. We set this up, along with stations for constructing Hand Turkeys complete with construction paper feathers, in the room where data analysis should have been taking place.
A lot of learning took place that day, none of which had to do with probability theory. We still laugh and joke, we still get eye rolls from our former faculty at the mention of “hand turkey” and each year, some form of text message, email, or photo exchange will evoke the memory of the enormous loaf. We broke bread…an enormous cranberry loaf…with our neighbors that late Autumn day. Bread shared freely, liberally spread with laughter, makes life taste sweeter.