Monday, March 15, 2010

A Loaf Before Dying

If I were going to die tomorrow, I would bake bread.

I came to this conclusion a few weeks ago when I was having chest pain, pressure, and palpitations. My husband kept telling me that I was not going to die. He's had such symptoms for years, and he's still here. And logically I knew there was no point in being anxious or panicky. But I ask you--how is one not supposed to think of mortality with symptoms like that going on, coupled with the knowledge that one's brother, who had similar untreated symptoms, died at 37? I may be a teensy bit prone to drama (I can still hear my 5th and 6th grade teacher saying "Cut the theatrics, Annie."), but I think a little fear is normal in such a situation, along with a few questions that we'd all like answered anyway. Questions like "Am I a good enough person? Did I give my son a sound start in life? What the heck am I here for anyway?"

Weeks later, with the really scary possibilities eliminated, I still don't have answers to those questions, and I'm not at all done figuring out my personal instruction book, nor confident that I am all I can be as a human being. But I do know that, standing in the face of death itself, I would still find the humble act of making bread a worthwhile thing to do.

I would make bread as one of my last acts because I love dough. I love the way it feels when it's ready--smooth and just a little springy. I love the magic of combining the most basic of ingredients and producing one of the most satisfying foods ever created. I'm pleased each time the shaggy mess I dump out onto the counter becomes smooth and elastic, that trite but right description from every cookbook ever written, as I knead it. I used to let my trusty KitchenAid knead it for me, to save my overworked tendons. Now that I'm not taxing my arms and shoulders so badly at the bakery and my 25-pound mixer must be inconveniently carried in from the garage for each use, I've discovered the joys of kneading--the rhythm, and the transformation from slack, wet mess to happy, well-developed dough right under your hands. You don't have to be a baking scientist to know when it's ready. You can feel it.

Well developed dough is warm and alive. There is every happy-hearth-and-home association in the world attached in my mind to the rising loaf in the bowl and on the counter. When I make bread, I feel both as primitive as a settler and as well-kept as June Cleaver in her pearls. The act of making bread for myself and my family connects me to centuries--if not millennia--of my human ancestors. Something that feels almost eternal is comforting when pondering one's own mortality, but I value its heritage at any other time, too.

I would make bread before dying because there is little that is more basic, short of gruel, and I would want to know that I hadn't lost sight of the simple things while traveling through all the complexity that is life. As long as I can still be content with warm bread and butter, I know that I'm still in touch with something essential.

I would make bread, no matter what, because my staff of life is one of the most satisfying things I've ever made, one of the few whose merits I do not question. It's not perfect most of the time. Sometimes a giant air bubble separates the crust from the bread. Sometimes it doesn't rise as well as I would like. But it's mine, the first recipe I ever created to my own liking, the first item in the personal repertoire I'm trying to build. It always pleases me like no bread I have ever bought, and I'm deeply happy every time to have made it myself. It's humble, but it suits me perfectly. I know that I'm meant to make this bread for my home, one answer in a mind full of questions.

Making bread is one of the rightest things I know to do, right up there with loving your family well. So if I knew that I were going out tomorrow, I wouldn't want to take off to Disney World or Paris, or flame out with a wild party. I'd head for the kitchen, bake some bread, and share it with my family and friends. I'd go out with homemade love.

And if I really were dying, I'd definitely have lots of butter!

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