I started with hard red wheat. Our pioneer ancestors mostly ate bread made of cornmeal until the wheat began to thrive in the arid climate and thin soil. Hand grinders like mine pulverized it fine enough for bread, even cakes.
Kneading, I could see my grandmother’s strong arms working the dough on the cupboard by the wood stove, hear her voice. Bread dough, she’d say, is as independent as a 2-year-old. Both require hard work if they are to develop properly.
I fold outside to inside and push with the heels of my hands, rotate the globe a quarter turn, crease and push, again and again and again. My brain replays a conversation with a young friend about Western problems: subdivisions, zoning, water. “But what can one person doooooo?” she wailed.
Kneading, I consider that universal question. When the warm mass sticks to my fingers, I dip a bit of home-ground wheat flour to scatter across the board. My sleeve soaks up forehead sweat. Turn, fold, PUSH; turn, fold, WHACK; turn, bend, SHOVE. My muscles hum in harmony as natural as the bread’s ingredients. Baking bread is cheaper and more consistent than other forms of therapy, and the results are edible. The downside of nibbling a human therapist, like treating tension with alcohol or drugs, outweighs the benefits.
Up to my elbows in bread dough, I WALLOP an irrational argument, POUND my point home. Decisions I've avoided for weeks make themselves as I poke a finger into the shiny dome to check the tension. When I plop the dough into my grandmother’s green porcelain bowl to rise, we’re both bouncy and full of vitality.
Until lately, I’ve baked mostly for my own well-being, but my friend Marty has taught me a better way.
What can one person doooooo? In January 2007, Marty baked and handed out 15 loaves. To the wife of the neighbor who has been accused of a crime. To the woman suffering from cancer. In February, 45 loaves. At 81, Marty is active in church activities, busy with children, grandchildren and interests so varied I’m always discovering new ones despite a decade of correspondence. She travels, teaches morning and evening classes, takes part in a book club, writes letters.
March, 53 loaves; April, 46. In her kitchen, young women learn the art of mixing, kneading, shaping the loaves they’ll take to their own kitchens to bake. Marty’s prayer ingredient is optional, but the smell of fresh-made bread blesses each home.
May, 40 loaves, including bread for a family mourning the death of their mother. “This somehow gives me a gift,” she explains, “and I guess the only thing I can name this gift is ‘peace.’” She maintains a large home, dozens of plants inside and around it; sends me pictures of her cats so I can enjoy their poses. She’s kept baking bread throughout the usual list of ugly incidents life can provide, including cancer.
June, 55 loaves, and July -- in Kansas! -- 72. She sends me clippings about Kansas politics along with her opinions; obituaries about people who lived with good humor and good works.
August, 46 loaves. “When I was a child and my mother made bread she would cut off a slice when it came out of the oven hot, slather it with butter, cover it with brown sugar, fold it together and give us a “love” sandwich.” Her grandchildren, learning to knead dough at ages 2 and 4, gobbled love sandwiches.
September, 35 and October, 47. Last year during Lent, instead of giving up coffee or chocolate, she gave bread to the workers in her church, and to others in the community. “This brings me joy,” she says, adding, “which in a sense is a selfish way of looking at it.”
The gift of bread carries with it history ancient beyond reckoning, symbolism that applies equally to every homeland, every religion. November, 60 loaves. Marty admits enjoying the fragrance of baking bread, “filling the house like a lovely incense.” And more: “Making homemade bread is not a talent or really a skill. . . . It only takes planning, time, energy and love.”
In December, while headlines screamed about stress, Marty gave away 51 loaves. I bite into butter-slathered hot bread. The universe wobbles and then settles into an age-old throb of grace. Homemade bread. Homemade love.
Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). After 16 years in Cheyenne, Wyoming, she’s moving back to her South Dakota ranch this summer.