KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 5: Spring 2016
Essay: 829 words [R]

The Community of Bread

by Joyce Hildebrand

We woke to a foot of fresh powder, the noise of the highway muffled by the heavy snow. A perfect day for baking bread. I’d had a rough week, and nothing comforts me more. Okay, maybe biting into a slab cut from a warm, yeasty loaf, the butter melting on the roof of my mouth.

I love the resurrection of the yeast from dry dead grains to breathing, foaming alchemists gobbling sugar and transforming it into gas. The stickiness of the dough, the hands-right-in-there-fingernails-and-all of it. The rhythm of kneading. The sudden metamorphosis of the dough from a dead lump to something alive that resists the pressure of my hands. The knowing when is the right time to stop kneading and let the creature rest and rise, and when to shape it into loaves.

What is it about baking bread that’s so comforting? Maybe it’s an antidote to loneliness—the long history of the stuff and the connection it gives us to generations stretching back to a vanishing point like railroad tracks on the prairies. Maybe it’s the universality of bread, with its myriad cultural shapes and textures, like human bodies—soft naan, crusty sourdough, crispy baguettes, spongy Ethiopian injera, chewy bagels. In a world of contested boundaries and conflict, in a time of Syrian refugees risking their lives and often losing them as they flee the horror of war, bread brings us together, reminds us we are family—a levelling, leavening force.

Or maybe it’s the mingling of air, water, fire, and earth, the elements rearranged into a something meltingly delicious and nourishing. I feel like a magician—a few movements of my hands and...voilà! Ah yes, but how many hands came before mine, growing the wheat and flax and sunflowers, processing the oats, milking the cows and producing the butter, running the water treatment plant, ensuring the continued functioning of the electrical system, collecting the salt from Great Salt Lake, working the assembly lines at the appliance factories? How many thousands of people did it take to make these two loaves of bread I’m pulling from the oven?

Parker Palmer, in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, writes, “Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people—it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”1

When I bake bread, I become aware of something that is always true but often forgotten—we’re all connected in a web of community, even when we’re alone.

And here’s the recipe I keep coming back to.

Oatmeal Bread

Adapted from More-with-Less, by Doris Janzen Longacre2

1 cup dry oatmeal (I use the slow-cooking kind)
½ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon yeast
½ cup warm water
unbleached white flour (as much as needed—I often add a cup of bread flour)

I almost always add a handful of sunflower seeds, a couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed, and, if I happen to have them, a handful of chia seeds.

Combine oats, whole wheat flour, sugar, butter and salt in a large bowl, and pour the boiling water over it. (Add the sunflower seeds, flaxseed, and chia here, too.) Stir to combine. Let oat mixture cool completely.

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water (with a pinch of sugar dissolved in it). It has to be the right temperature—if it’s too cool, the yeast won’t “proof,” and if it’s too hot, it will kill the poor critters. I do it by feel, but check out the temperature range online if you need precision.

When the yeast has bubbled up for a minute or so, stir the yeast mixture into the cooled oat mixture. Stir in the white flour, cup by cup. When the dough is stiff enough to handle, turn onto a floured board and knead for about 8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled. Dump the dough onto the counter and gently deflate it by pushing some of the air out. Shape into 2 loaves and place in greased 9x5x3" pans. Let rise again, until doubled. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes and at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for another 30 or so minutes. Take the loaves out of the pans and set them back on the oven rack. Turn the oven off and let them cool in the oven. This will keep the crust from wrinkling as they cool.

—Essay first appears in Earth Walk (1 February 2016) and is republished here by author’s permission.

Editor’s Notes:

1. Quotation is reprinted here with kind permission from Dr. Parker J. Palmer, founder of The Center for Courage and Renewal, and visionary author of several award-winning books on social activism.

2. More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre (Herald Press, World Community Cookbook series, most recent edition published in 2011; first edition, 1976)

Joyce Hildebrand
Issue 5, Spring 2016

is an editor and writer who works from her home in Colorado, where she lives with her partner, Cory, and dog, Dora. She blogs at Earth Walk.

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