The Story of Bread

Apr 29 2016 Published by under Tales From The Coal Patch

My mother was the short-order cook of the Home Breakfast Diner. She made sure we children had a good breakfast before school each day – even if that meant a fried egg for this one, scrambled for that one, soft-boiled on toast for another, oatmeal or cereal for one more. For herself, though, breakfast was always a slice of toast and cup of coffee. On weekends, the diner became more of a self-serve counter, and my sisters and I would often emulate mom’s breakfast in lazy high style. Lounging about in our pajamas, we would toast slice after slice of Stroehmann’s white bread, slather it with Parkay margarine, and sprinkle it heavily with a cinnamon-sugar mix from a glass jar capped with a metal screwcap perforated lid. We sipped Salada tea with our toast, rather than coffee, and read the Tag Lines dangling from our cups to each other.

Our weekday breakfasts nourished our bodies, but those weekend toast-fests with tea and talk were for something else. We described our dreams to each other, talked about tv shows, movies, and books, gossiped and traded complaints about friends, enemies, school, marching band, our church group, and life in general. Verbal agility and wordplay were both practiced and admired in our house; Saturday toast and tea was often a fun time in that regard. “All sorrows are less with bread,” said Cervantes, and as well all conviviality was more with cinnamon toast.

I thought of that breakfast toast the other day, as I popped a slice of Whole Foods artisanal cranberry-walnut bread into my long-slice-accommodating toaster with defrost and bagel settings. My toaster resides in a corner of the countertop, not on the table as did my family’s. (It does, however, have the same propensity to burn on one side and not toast on the other. Little improvement in toaster technology over the ages, in my opinion.) I eat my toast alone, or at least in silence, as the cats are not much for conversational banter.

The bread I toast is upscale, not to say aspirational, and certainly much more expensive than those slices of Stroehmann’s. I buy it because I have learned to think disparagingly of the pre-sliced white loaves of my childhood, and because I have developed a taste for crusty artisanal loaves. Though I note that one can buy “artisanal” white bread loaves at Whole Foods. They will slice them for you, too.

People still say of some new thing “that’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!” Don’t they? They should. When sliced “store-bought” bread appeared on the scene, my mother told us, she and her siblings longed to have it. To them its taste was deliciously novel and desirable. Their mother baked bread three times a week. Rarely did they get to partake of the heavenly delight that was store-bought, sliced white bread. Only at times when the coal miner’s wife and mother of seven ran out of time for one of the thrice-weekly bakings would she send a child down to the company store to purchase the savory goodness. Julia Child’s bread-that-tastes-like-Kleenex was the desiderata for my mother and her siblings.

When our mother described this to us, her longing as a child for store-bought bread, and sadness at “having” to eat her mother’s homemade bread, we hooted and hollered and cried out in disbelief. You should know, dear reader, that this story was told to us many, many times, and each time we would react with the same level of dismay. We were a family that repeated stories as if no written record could exist. The only way to preserve family lore was to repeat the stories. The telling of stories to each other was to say “this is who you are, you belong to this and it belongs to you.”  I belong to the story of bread, and it belongs to me.

We were the eaters of Stroehman’s, who longed for the few times a year when our mother would make homemade bread. At Easter time she made a special kind of bread called paska, which we ate with the other “blessed foods” that went into the Easter basket. This basket of delights was taken to the church on Easter Saturday for the priest’s blessing – kielbasa, Easter eggs, pickled eggs, horseradish & beets, ham, and an egg cheese that my mother called “cedetz” or sirecz. We loved paska, and while a sandwich of ham and egg cheese on paska was divine, just a plain slice of paska with butter was itself an eagerly anticipated treat.

I have baked bread maybe five times in my whole life. I buy flour in a one-pound sack, store it in a small Tupperware canister, use it mostly to make desserts for Mr. Z, and struggle to use it up before it goes bad.  I skip the bread aisle in my regular grocery store and buy bread at Whole Foods, or at the farmer’s market, or at the little bakery in the next town over, because I have learned to be a bread snob, and because I can afford it.

My mother baked bread a few times a year in an electric oven, along with cakes and cookies for our family. She bought flower in five or ten pound sacks and stored it first in a metal canister, later in a large Tupperware canister. Still later she had a bread machine, rarely used. Late in life, she began to favor “Tuscany bread” from her local grocery store, as the artisanal bread craze washed up on her shores.

Her mother, the grandmother I never knew, baked bread three times a week on a coal stove. She bought flower in twenty-five pound sacks and stored it in a compartment of a Hoosier-type cabinet designed especially for that purpose.

My great-grandmother baked bread in an outdoor communal brick oven in the small coal town of Beatty, PA.  I am fairly certain she bought her flour, though I don’t know in what quantities or how it was stored.

Zuska's great-grandma, near Beatty, PA

Zuska's great-grandma, near Beatty, PA

My great-great-grandmother, back in Slovakia, most likely ground her own grain or went to the local mill to get her flour.

I never learned from my mother the skill of baking the breads she knew how to make, the skill she learned from her mother and her aunts who lived next door. I would gladly pay to have the bread my grandmother baked because she could not afford the store-bought sliced stuff.  Even in the ethnic enclaves that survive in urban Philadelphia, I have not found a bakery that makes paska.

Last year at Easter time I assayed an attempt at paska. The results were mixed. It looked alright, had the wonderful aroma I remembered, and the taste was not all that bad. But it was way too dense, not the light, delicate, somewhere-between-bread-and-cake bread of my childhood.

Paska made by Zuska - loaves and burnt rolls

Paska made by Zuska - loaves and burnt rolls

This year I had an opportunity to learn to make paska at my in-laws’ Hungarian church “kitchen club”, but I had a month-long lung plague instead. They sent me the recipe and directions with pictures, so maybe I will give it another try.

Breadmaking is a science and an art – the right mix of dry and wet ingredients, the right amount of kneading, the right rise time, the quality of your yeast and the way you handle it, the evenness of your oven’s heat. My mother swore that her bread, as much as we loved it, never baked as well in her electric stove as it had in her old coal stove. She used to let the bread rise on the back of the coal stove, which always had some residual heat. Not so with an electric stove. She also used cake yeast, which is nearly impossible to find today. The dry yeast packets, to my mind, have a different rise effect and lend a different flavor to the bread. I have one of my mother's old bread pans, and the bread bakes differently in it that dark battered pan that it does in my shiny new one, i.e., better.

I don’t have a large family to bake for. I have my Whole Foods cranberry-walnut bread, and the cats and Mr. Z.  I could probably learn to bake bread, but I tell myself it’s not the best use of my time when it’s so easy to buy good bread (not paska, but good bread nonetheless).  I suspect if my grandmother were here with me today, she would not be sorry to leave off the chore of needing to bake bread three times a week in a coal stove. If she could afford it, she would no doubt be pleased to purchase tasty bread at a nearby store. I don’t have false nostalgia for a past where women’s work was constant and hard, and women’s opportunities were circumscribed by law as well as prejudice. My great-grandmother left Slovakia in part so her descendants could experience a life with cranberry walnut bread they didn’t have to bake for themselves. So all-in-all my story of bread has worked out okay.

It’s much harder today to be in the situation my grandmother had to negotiate, a family to feed and not able to afford the fancy store-bought sliced bread. My grandfather was able to support the family financially, more or less, on his coal miner’s wages even in the days of struggling to establish the union, while my grandmother ran the household, raised the kids, preserved food from the garden, and baked bread. Today’s poor families are unlikely to have someone at home full time, with the energy and time to bake bread. They are unlikely to have the capital to invest in bread-baking supplies and tools, or perhaps even to have a stable home address where said supplies can be stored. (As can happen, for example, when people are subjected to shameful evictions following on the heels of predatory lending practices.)

My good-fortune story of bread gives me an opportunity to lend a hand in other peoples’ stories. I am always happy to support food pantries. One of my favorite programs is Philabundance, and I recently discovered that my county’s community college has a food pantry program for its students, developed by faculty and staff. Maybe there’s something similar at a community college near you, or maybe you could help establish something like it. There is also a program at Community College of Philadelphia, helping students keep their grades up and graduate.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy artisanal toast in the morning, think about sharing some of your good fortune with people in your area who are not so fortunate. The story of bread should belong to all of us.

4 responses so far

  • Potty says:

    Thank you for the lovely story. Keep telling the stories, to the cats and to us.

  • Morgan Cale says:

    Wow, this is beautiful, with pics, lovely evocations of times past, and an exhortation to social justice at the end like dessert. I start out thinking that with all social change comes both goods and bads, and that's clear here when you address both fresh-baked bread (and ritual and community) and exhausting women's labor. Good writing, Zuska!

  • […] A beautiful post about bread. […]

  • Christina says:

    A lovely story! I wish you were here so I could offer you some of my Babka or my mother in law's Paska. We are Ukrainian Catholic and celebrate Easter on the same dates as the Orthodox.

    My mom used to bake bread when I was little and I was so spoiled - I longed to eat the Wonder bread my grandmother bought with the *yellow* butter (read parkay).

    I bake bread now just about every week - using flour I buy from Costco in 25 or 50 pound bags 🙂

    FWIW, there are YouTube videos for the Ukrainian breads - I've found them to be more helpful than the expert's advice as she takes a lot for granted.