My bread bowl is one of those big old-fashioned white ceramic beauties that I acquired in Edmonton in 1978, and carried back to Cranbrook where we were living at the time. A friend walked me through the Tassajara Bread Book recipe and a love affair with bread-making began. I made a pact with myself to bake bread only when the spirit moved me, only when I wanted to, not because I had to. I wanted to put good energy into it. That, I figured, would definitely impact the taste of my bread, and I still abide by that philosophy. What I did learn though, was that I didn’t have to be in a great mood to bake bread, I just had to want to. In fact, over the years I brought my anger, my frustration, my rage at the world’s failures of imagination – many a negative emotion – to my bread bowl and found that the baking process transformed those emotions to something more positive. Many a tear has been shed into my bread bowl over the years. And I have always found comfort there.
Part of how bread-baking evolved to becoming a soulful exercise that strengthened and enriched me, was my early sense of identification with humans everywhere who were, at the same time as me, preparing food by hand for their families. This idea brought me a recurring image of world community and a broader sense of purpose in this humble act, which has always had a calming and restorative effect. The simple act of kneading bread was so valuable for me, a person who tends to be in her head, way off somewhere, rather than grounded and in the present moment. I learned I had to be with my bread, pay attention to it and care for it like a baby. Many was the time on Denman when I’d pack my bread bowl off in the car with me, because I had to take the kids somewhere or run an errand and my bread was rising. Once you start the process, you must stay close to it.
Another gift of bread-making was the learning that things don’t have to be perfect to be perfectly fine. It is very hard to make a bad loaf of bread when you pay attention to your process and make it with love! For me, perfectionism wasn’t really a problem, but there’s always that little self-critic, saying it could be better, or the comparative mind at work, telling me that others were doing this a lot better than I was. The smell of fresh bread in the oven and the sight of those loaves cooling on the racks are such rewards, it becomes an easy practice to continue. Most homemade bread is perfectly fine.
I had a full career for which I travelled, yet I wanted my children to remember me as one of those “homey” mums, not someone who zoomed in and out with store bought wonders. I learned that this secret plan had indeed succeeded when one of my adult sons arrived at our house on Hornby one time when bread was emerging from the oven and sighed: “Ahhh, the smell of my childhood.” Yes! Now he’s the family bread-maker in his home.
Bread-making is one of those simple nurturing activities that helps us be grateful for what we have. It makes us slow down because it has its own time frame; you can’t rush bread-making.
It is a creative exercise because there are so many different types of bread – the possibilities are many. It makes a fine gift because it comes directly from our labours. It take us out of the mad consumerism of modern-day life in that we only need one bread bowl, a few bread pans or even cookie sheets, and a few basic ingredients – oil, honey, flour (organic though, is a must) yeast and water. And oh yes, an oven.
I sometimes used bread-baking as a metaphor when I taught mediation. I liked it because the subject matter is so familiar – most of western culture enjoys bread. Bread-making came from what has traditionally been a woman’s world, the home kitchen. Our great grandmothers probably all made their own bread, and in bread-eating parts of the world, my hunch is that the majority buy their bread product very locally, or still make it themselves. The mostly male world of lawyers I was teaching mediation could benefit from exposure and attention to something as humble as this. The key ideas for me as a teacher of mediation were that you work with the ingredients you have, you work carefully and patiently, you do not know what the end result will be, so it’s not about control, but if you give it your best focus and energy, and be mindful of the process, the outcome will most likely be positive.
We all need ways to slow ourselves down in our hectic-paced world, ways that aren’t necessarily an escape from our world but rather an engagement with it that is satisfying, that is creative and purposeful, that can be a gift for those in our lives. Soul in a bowl – I highly recommend it.