Here is an example of how history can be personal, and provide connection and guidance.
I’ve always been resistant to cooking. I swear if someone created an elemental chart of my make up it would be some fire, oceans of water (emotions) and most of all air — air — air — thinking, thinking all the time. It’s my tendency to live in my brain with books and art and ideas and the past and the future and everything, everything but the present moment. What’s utterly missing from those elements? Earth. My body. I can’t really relate when people talk about the pleasure they get out of preparing a good meal and sharing it with someone else. I know this is partly down to my trauma as well.
Of course, whenever I get a spare moment, I like to learn. The best meal I ever had in my life was that morning in Paris when I walked into that museum and saw the Botticellis hanging on the wall. I thought to myself, sometimes as a human being you get to walk into a palace and have breakfast with Botticelli. I’m still full, reeling, euphoric, from that breakfast. It was magic food.
But I’m an earth being, aren’t I? I need real food as well. I think of the patched together meals that I make for myself and of the time one memorable (for the wrong reasons) long weekend when I got a huge stack of toothsome books from the library. I made pot after pot of tea whilst I devoured those books. I was away in my own world, so happy, the things of this world utterly forsaken. This began on a Thursday night. It was only on Saturday afternoon when a humble little voice … namely, my body … remarked tentatively, “I think I’m hungry.”
My brain had been so nourished and fed by the art, literature, history and biographies that I had been consuming that I had been nibbling on things in an offhand way and hadn’t had a proper meal in days. I was really cross with myself for behaving like a child who has been left unsupervised (neglected, more properly) and has to be told to stop playing and eat. Not good enough for a proper grown up woman.
My make up — fire and water and air — is good. But missing from my gifts and abilities was the capacity to recognize the importance of something as earthy and grounding as taking the time to cook for myself. I suddenly thought, is that because I haven’t felt safe for all these years? Would that be a nice thing to do? I want to pay more attention to my body when she says she’s hungry or cold.
A few weeks ago, I visited my great-great grandmother’s grave. I suddenly remembered that my great-great grandmother lost her husband as quite a young woman. She had three wee children. What you had to do in those days was go round and stay with your relations for a few months at a time, always moving on. My great-grandmother, her daughter, didn’t have a home of her own until she married my great-grandfather when she was twenty five years old. She didn’t learn to cook until then and it sounds like she never cared about it either.
But, my cousin recalled, my great-granny did bake really good bread. Bread is the one food that I do respond to. I know a lot of people say that the smell of meat cooking is the most primal thing and it is wonderful. But for me the smell that makes me want to rip through walls is fresh bread. I thought to myself, I think I’d like to bake bread.
So I tried that this summer, and perhaps it’s genetic! I can make bread! I’ll never buy it again! It costs pennies to make, pennies! And it sounds so impressive when you tell people you make bread. I no longer have the shame and stigma of not being able to cook!
This is the recipe I use. It slices nicely, makes delicious sandwiches, and when it goes stale it allegedly makes great French toast. I cannot confirm this as it never lasts longer than a day or two in my house. I like to serve it on my great-grandmother’s one hundred year old bread board, with soft butter. If you listen to beautiful music whilst kneading it, anecdotal evidence shows that it tastes even better.
Basic White Bread
- 1 t. dry active yeast
- Pinch of sugar
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1 T. plus 2 t. vegetable oil, divided
- 1 c. warm water
- 2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
- Combine the yeast, sugar, salt, 1 tablespoon of oil and warm water in a medium sized bowl. Allow the yeast to activate … it will become foamy, which takes about ten minutes.
- Stir in one cup of flour, then add the rest of the flour half a cup at a time. You do not want dry dough, so I add just enough flour to keep it from being sticky.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for eight minutes. Fold in half, quarter turn, repeat. Some people say you should have a bread machine for this part but they’re expensive and I don’t have any room on my counters or shelves for more gadgets. And, I like kneading bread. It’s really quite relaxing and reflective, and why do we want to hurry up so much anyway? Also, I’m meant to do a workout for my arms so I can skip it on the day I make bread, I reckon. My arms look like cooked spaghetti no matter what I do anyway so who cares.
- Oil the inside of the bowl with one teaspoon of oil and put the ball of dough into the bowl, turning once to coat with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and put it in an unheated oven to rise for one hour.
- This will be one of the proudest moments of your life — remove the dough from the oven — it has risen! you think to yourself! And joyously punch it down, folding a few times.
- Lightly oil the inside of a loaf pan with the remaining oil. Shape the dough into a pretty oblong loaf, then return it to the unheated oven and allow to rise for another half hour.
- Remove the pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Place the loaf in the heated oven and bake for thirty minutes until golden brown on top. You can paint it with a little honey thinned with water and sprinkle some rolled oats on the top to make it beautiful.
- Another proudest moment: remove your bread from the loaf pan. It should sound hollow when you tap on the bottom.
- Choose your own adventure. Civilized version: allow the bread to cool on a rack whilst you make a pot of tea. Spread slices of the bread with butter and honey and eat a slice or two whilst sipping your tea. Even millionaires can’t get anything nicer than that, darling. Primal version: rip into that loaf of bread and eat it by the handful.
- When people call or text you casually mention that you’ve baked bread. They will be impressed. Play it extremely cool but feel like a bad ass.
- FYI: If you live with others and leave that bread unguarded, prepare to return to a crime scene…… a knife, some crumbs, and vague and uncooperative witnesses (the usual suspects).