Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras Meditation on Bread Baking, Past and Present

Today is Mardi Gras.  When I've asked my students about the historical roots of Mardi Gras, they've given me a blank look.  So, good teacher that I am, I explain:  in medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.  For more on the history of Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, and Lent, see this blog post on my theology blog.

I've been thinking about how much I don't bake anymore.  Sure, I make a coffee cake once in a while, a batch of cookies when I have an event to attend, but I'm baking just a few times a month.  I used to bake on a daily basis.  I was that person who brought goodies to work, but not because I wanted them out of the house.  No, I brought them because I'd gone a little overboard with the baking and needed to clear out the cookie jars.

In some ways, my lack of baking is a good thing.  Less baking means fewer cookies, cakes, and scones that I'm eating.

But in an essential way, I miss my breadbaking self.  I've written about my history with bread baking many times before in this blog; this post gives a bit of history about how I came to be a bread baker.

I started thinking back to my earlier bread baking days when I read this article by Adam Gopnik.  It begins by Gopnik's discovery of his wife's brief breadbaking days, which catapults him into a breadbaking journey of his own.  It's a hilarious article, but also full of details that make me want to bake. 

And it's full of details that make me think about bread in a different way:  "The tasty bits of your morning toast, I realized, are all the tombs of tiny dead creatures--the Ozymandias phenomenon on a miniature scale.  Look on my works, you mighty, and eat them with apricot jam" (p. 69).

A few weeks ago, when we had one of our brief cold snaps, I thought about baking bread, but it seemed so time consuming.  I really wanted a Christmas bread, but it seems time to put those recipes away and move towards Spring.  I thought about pumpkin bread or the orange-cranberry bread that's amazing, but even the thought of a quick bread made me tired.

Then I remembered one of my Christmas presents.  My parents had done all their shopping in Colonial Williamsburg, and amongst my wonderful gifts were some packages of mixes that would lead to baked goods.  I quickly whipped up a batch of sweet potato muffins.

Along the way, I thought, this is why people use these mixes.  It was quick; five minutes and muffins were in the oven.  It was easy, and even though I forgot to add the egg, it turned out OK.  I recognized all of the ingredients.  Maybe it's an expensive way to buy flour and leavening, but I see why people do it.

I have a tiny kitchen, so I don't have room to stockpile mixes.  But it's been good to have a window into new possibilities.

In past years, I might have made a special Mardi Gras bread today.  I might have made pancakes, in tribute to the Shrove Tuesday feasts of my childhood churches.  I'd have felt sad, eating pancakes alone on Shrove Tuesday.

I've had a few weeks now, of eating with abandon, especially last week.  We ate massive burgers on Monday, a Chinese food feast on Thursday, with fried foods at both restaurants.  Last week, I ate an orange scone at Panera not once, but twice--and you may shrug, but each scone has over 500 calories.  There were yummy salads from the Publix deli, and I don't mean green, leafy salads.

Yes, last week was a Carnivale week of eating to be sure.  Time for the soberness of Lent.

But if you're not ready for penitence yet, I've discovered an easy yeasted bread.  See this blog post for directions and pictures.

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.  May you have a nourishing, creative day.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Enjoyed all this food, and food for thought. Dreaming of sweets, myself. The one thing I am pretty good about baking fairly regularly is banana bread, to rescue those overripe bananas before they drip into glue!