Things I knead

It’s science, people! Smell and memories are connected on a biological level. That’s why, when you smell tomatoes warm from the sun, you think of your grandfather; when you smell Lysol, you ask who’s sick; and when you smell new electronics you get happily excited. Just me? Okay, memories are personal, so go sniff something–a cardboard box, any of the spices in your kitchen, maybe some Ivory soap…eventually, you will land on at least one scent that triggers a memory of an event or person.

Science will also tell you that smell connects us with the associated emotions of those memories. That’s why some love the smell of low tide while others find it disgusting; why a cologne you liked at first may, later, make you scared and want to throw up because it reminds you of an abusive boyfriend.

Again, maybe that’s just me, but you get the point.

Have you ever smelled bread baking? Of course you have, it’s the scent that hits you when you walk into a Subway sub shop. But the smell of bread baking doesn’t make me think of grinder shops, I think of my father.

Dad didn’t cook often, but when he did he tackled a recipe until he mastered it. Because of that, the man knew his way around pasta, eggnog…and bread. On winter weekend days he would haul out the big bowl from under the stove, the flour bag from the pantry, the yeast packets from the fridge, the sugar bowl from the counter, and set to bakin’. Hours later, when we had forgotten that he had even started making bread, the smell would hug us.

One day when I was young, maybe five or six, I had dug a fort into the snow that had drifted against our house during a storm. I loved being in my fort, it was cold but cozy; quiet but not lonely. The sun had already set and the view outside the Susan-sized fort entrance was mesmerizing: A porch light created glittery sparkles on the fallen snow and lit up the still falling flakes which all contrasted with the country-darkness beyond the light glow.

It was a gentle baking-bread scented wave sneaking outside (through the same cracks in our very old house that let mice inside) that made me eventually leave my fort. Everything about me was cold and damp from a full day of sledding, tromping, and forting, but I had refused to end the magic…until the bread smell invaded my snow fort. I’m grateful to Childhood Susan for snapping a smell-and-sniff memory photo of the moment. Kids are wise, we don’t always give them enough credit for that.

Many…many years later I live half a country away from my Connecticut childhood, my father passed away five years ago, and I’m not as tolerant of cold weather as I was as a kid–but the smell of baking bread still brings back that snow-day memory and emotions of being cozy, loved and cared for.

Despite the warm memories, Adult Susan never baked bread. I should amend that: back in the 90s we had a bread maker and I used it a few times but the shape of the bread was weird and while it smelled like 70s Connecticut, it didn’t taste like it.

This past spring a Facebook group that I’m in began a baking challenge based on a shared, weekly theme. (Full disclosure: it’s our podcast Facebook group and all the themes are former subjects.) Each week we bake something that the subject inspires, take a picture, and share it on Sundays with our path from subject to photo.

Like a lot of people this year, I’ve learned new-to-me skills, and thanks to that weekly bake challenge, one of mine is making bread.

Babka and pierogi from my childhood Easters? Made ’em for Polish-American creator of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler.

This tied me to my own past, taught me to bravely try complicated recipes, and that even when the reality doesn’t physically match the memory, it can be very delicious.

Conchas like the ones Frida Kahlo made for Diego Rivera? Why not?

This tied me to a world not my own, and taught me to try new recipes even if I’ve never had (or seen) them before. Mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook.” She’s right.

Milk bread for…honestly, I don’t remember who was the subject, but I had never had it so I made it.

This was a very different recipe –eggs, butter, and warm milk–and the one that made me realize the therapeutic powers of kneading; it was also a great success, I’ve made it several times since.

French bread for Coco Chanel? I was scared of this one because the recipes all included a step where you put the shaped loaves in the oven and, at the same moment, you throw a handful of ice cubes in a heated pan on the rack below the bread. They all warned to take care as the move could crack the oven door glass.

Braved it!

This is the bread that taught me to mix with my hands (also, the success gave me a lot of confidence.)

When yeast was not available in our grocery store, I ordered the big bag online and keep it in the fridge…it’s more than half gone, I’ve made a lot of bread. Early on, I used the dough hook on my stand mixer, but the first time I used my hands like Dad would have, the tactile aspects thrilled me so I changed my ways. When I was able to visit my mom this fall, I made her bread several times; I did a FaceTime with a family friend on my phone and mom nearby in a chair while I made French bread for the manyth time.

French bread crouton for homemade onion soup for Mom. Yes, it was as good as it looks.

After almost 10 months of bread baking, the smell still reminds me of that magical winter evening and of my dad. Kneading each batch makes me think of the generations of women-both on my family tree and off- who would have made their family’s bread the same way, and the physical activity of it keeps me grounded in my own present moment.

Each time I get my own big bowl out, flour, water, yeast, and a little sugar combine to give me things that I need: nourishment and confidence, sure, but also the ability to transport to my own past, entwine me with history, and prepare me for whatever is next.

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