Heartwarming bread: It spreads comfort, stirs memories
Let’s say it’s been a lousy day — a pop quiz, maybe, or a finger-pointing boss. Rotten traffic, lunch squashed at the bottom of a backpack, a threadbare temper, the threat of a headache that hovers and descends.
Let’s say the weather is crummy, cold and sniveling and unrelenting gray.
It’s a day for trudging, for slogging across the driveway and up the steps, landing heavily on the welcome mat. Plans are made to flop dramatically onto the couch. The front door gets listlessly pushed open with a whiny, “Enh.”
And that’s when the first wisps of magic caress drooping shoulders, smoothing lines between eyebrows and massaging throbbing temples. Curling tendrils beckon toward the kitchen: Come in! Come in!
It smells so good! Like love and security and cold winds kept at bay, like sitting at the kitchen table and spoons licked clean of raspberry jam and the offer of another steaming slice.
And oh, yes, another slice, please. Maybe two — one to eat, one to plunge a quivering nose into or rub perfume-like onto neck and wrists, or just to cuddle for a little bit.
It’s magic, this homemade bread. It’s a panacea and an “I love you” and a lock on the door when the monsters are trying to get in.
“I think if all the leaders in the world would sit down and have a slice of warm bread together, I think it would solve a lot of problems,” said David O. Johnson, owner of Daily Bread bakery in Montrose.
He’s kidding. Kind of. But really, isn’t he on to something?
Wednesday was National Homemade Bread Day — which, yes, could be yet another of those weirdo things made up on the Internet and embraced by desperate journalists and bloggers as an excuse to do a story. But let it be here declared that in the case of homemade bread, no excuse or justification is needed.
“I think there’s some instinctual, nutritional urge (to eat bread),” said Wayne Smith, an assistant technical professor in Western Colorado Community College’s culinary arts program. “It fits. It’s right.”
Archaeologists in western Europe have found trace evidence of wild grain ground on rock more than 30,000 years ago. The theory is that this was the first flour, presumably baked into bread. There’s stronger evidence of bread made during the Neolithic Period, and since then, we haven’t looked back.
It’s helped define western cultures, and even in cultures where rice is the dominant grain, there often are bread-like foodstuffs.
Bread literally is the staff of life. When people don’t have it, they overthrow their government. Last pennies are spent on bread. It’s the first thing grabbed off the shelf when a blizzard is coming. Loaves of it are strategically placed by supermarket checkout lines because, really, who can resist? Eaten with friends, it’s a bond and a covenant. It’s as basic as food gets, programmed into our DNA, really, and yet it’s magic.
“I still marvel when my bread comes out,” said Mary Lincoln, who has owned Slice o’ Life Bakery in Palisade for 30 years. “Handling the dough, kneading it, putting it in the oven, thinking, ‘This is perfect. This is just perfect. This is exactly what I was aiming for.’ “
Chemically, there’s so much that goes into bread, Smith said: the inclusion of a living organism (yeast) if it’s a leavened bread, the mixing, the kneading, the baking. It’s kind of a miracle, really.
Which is why, when made from scratch, when kneaded with familiar hands and baked in a familiar oven, bread is so special.
“Nowadays, we live in a society where everything has to be instant gratification, instant feedback,” Johnson said. “But bread takes time.”
Considering perfect memories, let’s glide back to the hours spent watching grandma or mom make bread, perhaps for a Thanksgiving dinner — measuring out the flour, giving the dough a good punch, kneading and kneading and kneading it until the surface was taut and smooth, checking periodically as the crusts browned, rising flush-faced from the hot oven with a loaf in each hand.
It’s one of the purest rituals we have.
A home that smells like baking bread is one of the safest havens we can ever know.
And the first successfully made loaf of bread can be listed among life’s greatest accomplishments.
Bread teaches us to forgive, because it is forgiving; toss just about anything — cranberries, olives, chocolate — in there and it’ll taste good.
A slice of warm bread with butter on a cold day is a religious experience.
Homemade bread is love. In fact, Johnson theorized that bad people can’t make good bread. Oh, they can make technically proficient bread, bread that turns out OK, but it will always lack… something.
To make bread for someone is to say, “I committed hours to this because I love you. I kneaded and shaped these loaves because I want to nourish you. I watched the dough rise and my heart lifted, too, because this is for you. I timed it so that you could come home to the smell of loaves in the oven. This is what I can do for you.”
And the best way to say “thank you” is to follow those curling tendrils of bread magic as they beckon, to slough the spiritual scabs of a rotten day and float along to the source of all that is good. To cut a warm slice and slather it with butter, to bite through the crisp crust and sink transcendently into the rapture. Go ahead and close your eyes. Chew slowly.