Cooking Southern: Love and Culture of Baking Bread

“Bread, like real love, took time, cultivation, strong loving hands and patience. It lived, rising and growing to fruition under only the most perfect circumstances.” Melissa Hill, “Something From Tiffany’s”

It’s Sunday evening and the children have taken naps after a long day of church and visiting the farm, where their Nana and cousins live. Our granddaughter, Avery, tells us about her Nana’s “ornery hound dog” and she laughs with delight when I say her Grandpa “Donk” is an “ornery hound dog” too! Donk, also known as Kevin, pretends to be insulted and then chases Avery and her little brother, Elliot, out the door and into the yard for a game of chase.

Our son, Michael, is on the back deck playing guitar. He is on grill duty, a job he seems to enjoy. Kristin, our superhero daughter-in-law, is stilling wearing the floral print dress from church, and walks barefoot around the kitchen with purpose. She does not appear to be concerned about preparing the evening meal while balancing baby Oliver on her hip. It makes me smile to remember how I once carried Michael on my own hip, and while I love bouncing my Grandchildren this way, it doesn’t take long before I am handing the little sack of potatoes to the nearest adult with free hands. Donk comes in the door a bit winded, but is delighted to take the baby to hang out with Michael. It won’t be long before he is tossing our newest Grandchild into the air to be rewarded with happy baby giggles!

Michael goes to check the grill, and Kevin looks at me with the biggest smile, and says “Baby, this is what life is all about.” This is a moment when time stands still. You try to take it all in, remember every detail, and hold on to it as long as you can. I decided many years ago happiness is these moments, captured and stored away. Making a memory in the most simple way is how I have come to define “joy“.

A familiar smell drifts outside and I must investigate. The aroma immediately brings back memories of Sunday dinners at my Grandma Hartsog’s house. I am not disappointed when I see what Kristin is cooking. Simmering on the stove is ham, fresh green beans, new potatoes and my most favorite food in the world, Kristin’s Grandmother’s homemade bread, fresh from the oven and cooling with one of her Grandmother’s tea towels.

Kristin and I talk about how our Grandmother’s would get up early every Sunday to start the process of making bread. I never knew Kristin’s bread was made with a “start” from her Grandmother’s bread. It’s kind of like the fermented fruitcakes at Christmas. Someone gives you a “start” and you follow several steps to end up with an alcohol dessert. It seems like a weird science project, and it kind of is.

Kristin explains to me how sourdough bread makes small microbes, or bacteria, on the baker’s hands. The microbes on Kristin’s hands matches the microbes of the bacteria on her Grandmother’s hands, and sadly her Grandmother is no longer with us. When Kristin told me about this, I thought it was so cool to know part of her Grandmother is with us in every loaf of bread. Sound impossible? Well, a study performed by ecologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden studied fifteen “sourdough experts” from around the world. The bakers brought new homemade starters, fed from the exact same ingredients sent from Dunn’s lab. But before the bakers could get their hands into the dough, their hands were swabbed for bacteria. The result? Dunn and his team were able to draw a close connection between bread, bakers and their bacterial species.

I explained this to Kevin, and he got a funny look on his face. As a scientist, my ornery hound dog husband’s mind is busy pondering the chemistry of bread. Personally, I think it a beautiful thing. Kristin agreed! “I love the thought of the children having their microbes combined with my Grandmother’s when they help me make bread. It’s a very comforting thing. This made me remember my own grandmother, and how she was up every Sunday at 5:00 a.m. to start dinner for what usually was 25-40 people. She always started with the rolls, and I can actually remember the smell making it’s way upstairs when I stayed with her. The memories of being tucked into a feather bed under her handmade quilts and waking up to her cooking was a lifetime lesson of culture and love.

“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.” Mark Kurlansky, ‘Choice Cuts’ (2002)

Now I am a Grandmother, and although I never learned cooking skills like Kristin, I am very well aware of the connection and importance of food and family. Raised in Appalachia, having family dinners was, and continues to be a very important part of our culture. Appalachians tend to be family oriented, and other than an occasional pot luck dinner in the basement at church, socialization remains for the most part within the family. Every family event is centered around a big meal. Appalachian’s rarely dine out when with family, because preparing the meal together is so important. Making traditional dishes like oyster dressing on Thanksgiving or Peanut Butter Pie at Christmas is expected. Stories about recipes are repeated during family dinners. Like homemade bread, traditions are passed down and have meaning beyond the dishes on the supper table.

“Sourdough isn’t only for bread. Any grain-based baked good- from crackers to waffles, from muffins to pasta, can be made with a wild yeast starter. Why would the home baker want to incorporate sourdough into their regular baking? First, it’s an excellent way to use the starter you remove during feedings. Instead of throwing the excess in the trash, add it to your pancake batter or chocolate chip cookies. Second, a sourdough starter is an ecosystem of wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria that work together to add B-vitamins to grains, to break down gluten for better digestion, and to neutralize phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. In other words, it’s good for you. And finally, because sourdough eventually becomes a way of life. Experimenting with different ways of using it is one of the most satisfying aspects of using wild yeast in your kitchen.”
― Christa Parrish, Stones for Bread

Kristin told me the Grandchildren, Avery (5) and Elliot (3) help her make bread, so their little hands have become part of the microbes in the family bread. This makes me so happy! Avery and Elliot help make bread, pancakes, and cinnamon rolls and their precious bacteria joins the microbes of their Mother and Grandmother. It becomes a part of their digestive system and like the quote above says, it’s good for them!

For Kristin, the simple act of kneading bread is a spiritual process, and she said she often uses the time to pray. I get it. I’ve always felt the same way about gardening. Planting flowers, vegetables or herbs and getting my hands dirty in the soil is good therapy. In fact, Kevin and I have started a tradition of planting flowers, herbs, berries or trees on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Easter Sunday. We name trees and plants returning every year after the person we are honoring. There is something about seeing a tree named after our Mother’s flower every spring. It’s as if they somehow live on through the life of the plant. On Easter Sunday, we often go to our camp near Stone Mountain in Elkin, NC and have our Easter Sunday service in the blueberry patch, dedicated to both our Fathers. There is healing in praying and remembering loved ones on the day we remember the resurrection of Jesus. It doesn’t make us stopping missing the ones we have lost, but it does help to focus on growing instead of dying.

There is nothing better than family dinner. It is our culture. It is who we are.
Grandma made the best bread!
A Grandmother’s love.

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Published by statesville2020

Francie has spent her thirty year career as a licensed family therapist. She is a freelance writer & her work has been published in medical journals, magazines, and newspapers. Francie lives in Statesville, NC with her husband, Kevin, and their two dogs, Gypsy & Bella.

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