Sunday Morning: January 19, 2011
by Jim Athearn
I have returned from my Sunday morning run, and I see Debbie is in the kitchen kneading bread. She was combining ingredients for it when I left the house about an hour ago. She had whole wheat flour, oatmeal, wheat germ, molasses, oil, salt, and, of course, yeast in my mother’s big, old yellow bowl. Now she is getting close to finishing the kneading. Debbie raises her shoulders and pushes hard with the heels of her hands on the large, brown blob on her wooden pastry board (God help anyone who attempts to use this dedicated board for cutting vegetables or meat).
Push, fold, roll over. Push, fold, roll over. Now she scoops some white flour from the board and smoothes it over the dough with her right hand, and then it’s push, fold, roll over some more. Her forehead is damp, and the hair clipped to the back of her head has loosed some strands that hang down in her face. She says, “I wish I had something to stand on to get a few inches higher so I could push down better.”
This recipe yields three loaves, so it is a lot of dough to work all at once. I have made bread enough times to know that the specified ten minutes of kneading can seem endless for the first couple of minutes, but once you get in the rhythm, it is almost enjoyable to use your muscles and your time this way. Like sailing, and maybe gardening, time kind of gets irrelevant after a while. I also know, though it’s not spoken of by either of us, that she is feeling pleasure and pride as she engages in this wholesome and primitive practice. She inherited the technique from her mother and countless grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors back to when our tribal ancestors first learned to grow grains. Now the dough feels and looks right, having absorbed the additional flour and acquired a firmer texture. Debbie rolls the dough into a big ball and places it in the washed and buttered china bowl. She drapes a damp dishtowel over it and then puts it into the warm oven to rise for a second time.
I leave the kitchen to shower, and when I return, she is buttering the three loaf pans so the bread won’t stick. She has scooped up some soft butter with her fingers and is using her bare hand to cover the inside of the pan thoroughly. I watch for a while. How thorough does it have to be? She’s been rubbing that same pan so long you’d think she was trying to finish a song. Now she gets another one. Her body is tilted to one side to catch the good light from the window in the pan so she doesn’t miss a spot. Her reading glasses have slipped down to the end of her nose.
That’s it for now, for the bread, anyway. Debbie has gone upstairs to dust our bedroom, a job that gets done every winter whether it needs it or not. In an hour or so the risen bread will be punched down, divided into three loaves, and will rise again in the pans; then it will be baked. One loaf will be given to Simon, who lives in his grandmother’s house down the road a mile, and another will go to Daniel, our other son, who lives 12 miles away in Chilmark on the site of his great-great-grandfather’s cellar hole. Bread, marriage, home and family on a Sunday morning. Amen.