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The Village Idiot

Momís homemade bread

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(1/2013) Twenty-eight years ago, it entered my head that I should sober up and get on with living. The hangovers had stretched from a few hours into days and what was left of my mind stubbornly refused to let me suicide by any means quicker than drinking myself to death. With a sigh of resignation, I looked about for something to live for. Having spent the past twelve years as a drunk, I hadnít much recent experience outside of that scene so I considered the time before alcohol. The twelve years of schooling offered little beyond frustration and anger so I jumped beyond them to my preschool years. What in those dim memories could be conjured to inspire a new run at life?

The fragrance of Momís homemade bread filled my head. My mouth watered. I knew I had a starting point. Not a reason to live, but a goal to focus on while I rebuilt a life mostly wasted at that time. I would attempt to recreate the white bread Mom had enchanted a five year old with. (Years later I would realize the god Yeast, has long influenced my life. First, as a major facilitator of bread, then the creator of alcohol, and back to bread again.)

I had a mission. Decades later, I have not built Momís bread. It eventually penetrated my addled pate, via a dozen bread books covering all aspects of bread from grain fields to glazes, that a couple of things were no longer available to me. Whatever flour Mom had used, the wheat for it is no longer grown. The milk certainly isnít the same. (Cream graced the upper portion of the bottles she poured the sweet liquid from, nothing like the thin, chalky joke called "whole milk" today.) Perhaps even the yeast strains had been tweaked. And the butter I use was, in her kitchen, some brand of long forgotten margarine.

Disasters (in my eyes) followed me from bread book to bread book. I finally gave up on Momís bread and turned to artisan breads at librarian Sueís suggestion. Which was a leap of frustration more than of faith. Most people who attempt bread building can make an acceptable white bread. Though many home bakers Iíve talked to pale at the thought of working with wet, gooey dough that can take days to build and often flops at the moment before entering an oven. Sue, being on a bread-building path herself, took to sharing her efforts and inspired me to reconsider just what I wanted from bread.

For ten years, I played with recipes, getting close to something I actually liked, though each loaf was found lacking in one quality or another. Then in October of this year, everything came together. Breads began to turn out close to perfection. Especially breads I donít like, but others find delightful. It seemed I could do nothing wrong even when I screwed up a recipe or tweaked it by switching flours, mixed building methods because of scheduling, or (even more likely to end badly) adjusted ingredient amounts and time tables to get what I wanted when I wanted it! I had reached a wall and passed through it, or over it.

The Mad One has been my harshest, most earnest critic. No other individual has sampled more of the breads Iíve built, nor urged me onward, nor chastised me more often. The last breads I presented to her eager, but skeptical eyes, were at once tore into chunks to be devoured alone, dipped in some sauce, swiped through a gravy, eaten with cheese, savored with sips of wine.

Staring at me over a handful of bread, she allowed, "This is real bread. All the breads you have brought me these last weeks have been real bread. Now you have to decide. Are you going to continue playing or are you going to get serious and take the next step?"

I stare back at her. The next step is commercial of course. I considered the breads good enough, but wondered if it was ego or fact. Fact, according to the Mad One.

"Stop experimenting and focus on several breads, each for a different purpose. Perfect them so you can make them with little effort. Youíve made some good cake, add another desert or two and you have the basis of a business. Emmitsburg is the wrong town for such a business though. You will have to move. Sophia would be a good place to open a bakery. My sister says the bread there is horrible now. The old ways of doing things are being lost to the European Union."

I donít see myself in Bulgaria, but I never saw artisan breads on the horizon, or the Mad One either. Nor did I see a developing wheat allergy that leaves me groggy, sinuses clogged, eyes burning and cramps in the intestines after only a few mouthfuls of bread.

Iíve new goals I struggle toward. Making an income from bread is not one of them. (Iíve stood on a farm and watched tons of commercial artisan breads be unwrapped, ground and fed to pigs and cows. Why would I put my heart and energy into making pig food?) No, Iíll work at perfecting the recipes Iíve gotten good at and gift them to people I know will appreciate them.

I would like to try building breads in a kitchen with commercial equipment someday, before the allergy gets so bad I have to remove myself from a floury environment. (Perhaps Iíll even offer them at some future bake sale.) Gods, I hope the Mad One understands. Iíve seen her challenge dragons and the dragons back down! Maybe I can teach her to make bread, if she hangs around another twenty-eight years?

There is a goal worth working toward. I now have flour from Europe to use in the recipes the Mad One and I favor most. She tells me she has no talent for bread building, just a passion for eating it. Thatís all I started with, a passion so great I set aside much else I could have more profitably pursued. She wants me to teach her so she can teach her mom, who (of course) makes the best breads in the Mad Oneís life. But not like the ones I build.

Sadly, the Mad Oneís mom will not always be there to build such memorable breads. The Mad One, stubborn as she can be, will learn the recipes and techniques from me so she can go home and learn more from her mother. Knowing Iíve passed something valuable on to someone else seems the best way for me to proceed. Perhaps someone not on the Mad Oneís horizon will learn bread building from her.

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.