My mother has been with me in spirit in the last week. I have been trying to replicate her recipe for Portuguese Easter Bread. In her later years she had tried to get it down on paper, but alas, none of the three stained scraps of card stock either matched one another or seemed to produce that earthy sweet eggy bread that I remember. The first batch didn't rise well and the second just tasted bad. By the time I got to #3, my dogs were hoping for another failure, but I was channeling my roots and I could feel my maternal lineage near me.
I can still see my grandmother leaning over a huge three foot round galvanized wash tub placed on the wooden floor in the kitchen.Wooden floors so run down as to easily mark her passage back and forth to the sink. The rough silver trough was always placed out in the main part of the kitchen with the kitchen table to the side. I am sure it saw use soaking and washing clothes with the washboard, but it had it's own special use in the kitchen for her bread making. I can smell the scent of yeast and see the light skin on the pale rising dough. As the hours passed I could watch this mound rise high in the tub. I suppose only a little girl could be delighted by the miracle of yeast, little crystals full of life, waiting to give rise to whatever baking job we give to it. This bread was a sight that I could walk around, bread bigger than me. To me it was magic. Grandma would come by and pinch it and smell it, until some right combination was achieved. She had a special cotton blanket that would cover it, protecting it from draft. I spent many hours there and can still see her leaned over the tub doing the kneading, her head wrapped with a kitchen towel. The last thing she would do after knocking it down would be to mark the top with a cross. The heel of her hand making a vertical, then horizontal dent in the bread. This, perhaps, my first exposure to ritual.
I was often at the kitchen table, idling in ways that children these days would not understand, over the sights and sounds of my mother and grandmother talking in Portuguese. It was my mother's first language and my grandmother's only language. I could not speak to my grandmother in words but we saw each other, we belonged to each other in ways that were not spoken or perhaps understood. She was like the earth itself, round and full of mystery. She always had her hair pulled back in a cook's bun, her hair forever carrying some strands of the natural black, but when she baked, her head was swaddled in one of her embroidered towels, with bits of red and green thread lacing the edging. She would watch me sometimes as she talked to my mother. Did she wonder if I understood their woman secrets? We spoke through the process of cooking and food. She would pass me a spoon to continiue her action, or to taste, and with these actions, I found a place in her kitchen and life.
When it was finally time to put the bread into loaves, she would grab a large handful of it. it would stretch and break off, the remainder springing back into itself. She would make the more traditional loaves, but the ones that captured my mind were the ones she made that looked like a woven basket. She would create the body, round and snuggled into a big earthen pot, then she would lay raw washed eggs into the top and then gently weave strands of dough into a braided cover. The eggs would bake with the bread. When slicing, the knife would hit the hard shells, and to me, it was like finding gold.
This was a language that lived between my mother and myself as well. Hours beside one another in the warmest room in the house. Often in the summer, leaning over the sink, peeling and coring fruit for canning, stirring bowls and pots, and the unending of tasks of cooking, washing dishes and, of course, baking bread.
These days bread is so out of favor. No gluten, wheat, carbs, sugar! For me it was part of the weave of my life, the women that molded and shaped how I view the world, how I interact with it. To be the child of farm woman, of immigrant grandparents, taught me many things, about generosty, abundance, magic and home. So in this week of rebirth, rituals of religion, and spring, I enjoyed my journey into the rebirthing of my family's bread, which, by the way, did finally find it's own nature, as I continue to find mine.
Happy Spring to you all, and even if you don't eat much bread, you might enjoy the interesting quotes taken from the Village Voice.
11. "There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." --Mahatma Gandhi
16. "If I survive, I will spend my whole life at the oven door seeing that no one is denied bread and, so as to give a lesson of charity, especially those who did not bring flour." --Jose Marti20. "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou." --Omar Khayyam