Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Beard on Bread and Everything Else

I learned about hospitality from watching my mother. She invited everyone to share meals with us, from her musician friends, to students who couldn't make it home for the holidays, to various church members--and of course, the friends of her children. Sometimes she would make an elaborate, multi-course, French meals. Other times, we'd simply share whatever we were going to have anyway: lasagne, chili, or my sister's favorite, tacos.

One summer day, when my sister and I whined about how bored we were, my mom said, "Let's make bread."

It was the summer of 1978 or so. Through various college students and interns who served our church, we'd been introduced to vegetarian dishes and whole foods ways of eating. Mom had a copy of Ellen Buchman Ewald's Recipes for a Small Planet, and we made Milk and Honey Whole Wheat Bread. I still have that cookbook, although I don't use it anymore; the recipes are a bit too earnest and 1970's for me (very chewy, very beany, with very little in the way of seasonings that I like). But that bread recipe holds up. In fact, the cookbook's spine has split, and the book splits into two at that recipe, which tells you how often I've made it.

I fell in love with bread baking that day. I loved the way that the yeast transformed the flour. I loved the slow process, the way I really couldn't go wrong. I loved the feel of the dough in my hands. I loved the final product. I loved that the seminarians coming to dinner raved over the bread we made, and we ate every crumb of every loaf.

From that early experiment, I continued to experiment with bread baking, and it rarely let me down. I checked baking books out of the library, and received them for presents. I remember the day in Knoxville, Tennessee when I bought Beard on Bread. The clerk said, "Oh, you're going to have fun with this book."

He was right. Decades later, after a kitchen remodel that left me a little afraid to use my brand new kitchen, I returned to that book to make a few loaves of cinnamon bread. Some people smudge their houses with sage, but I baptize mine with bread dough!

Today is James Beard's birthday, and those of us who love good food owe him an enormous debt. We could argue about which chef most changed the course of cooking in the twentieth century, and I could argue that James Beard would win that title (I could also make a strong case for Julia Child). James Beard incorporated a variety of cooking techniques and ingredients from around the world, and he showed us the way. He didn't insist on recipes that forced us to spend hours in the kitchen, although if we wanted to, he'd give us those recipes too. He taught us to use local ingredients, and to cook on open fires, and about the joys of hors d'oeuvres and every other type of food.

I don't bake bread as often as I once did. It's interesting to reflect on how the bread landscape of our nation has changed since I first started baking bread. Once upon a time, you couldn't get sourdough bread outside of big cities. Now, most cities and towns have a supermarket that carries it, at least most cities east of the Mississippi (I confess to not having travelled enough through the western states recently enough to be sure). Now, I have two French bakeries within walking distance of my office. If I don't have time enough at home to bake, there's no shortage of bread to buy.

Perhaps today, I will return to my bread baking roots. Perhaps today, I will take that battered copy of Beard on Bread off the shelf and make cinnamon bread. Maybe I'll dig even deeper and make Milk and Honey Whole Wheat Bread.

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