When I had the rare visitor to the house I inhabited for a cold, lonely winter on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, I’d have us make bread. Not only did it fill the house with delicious aromas and create a centerpiece for the evening meal, it gave structure to the day.
You can’t make bread quickly. Even fast rising and so-called quick breads require you to measure , mix and wait for a half hour to 45 minutes. The bread I make takes a few hours.
After the dough has absorbed most of the water, it must be kneaded, which, in addition to inspiring the inevitable pun about how great it is to be needed, gives your hands and arms a mild workout. Kneading dough is so easy that previous skill sets, or their lack, don’t matter. The great majority who don’t work with their hands discover how pleasant it is to fall into a gentle rhythm: push, turn, fold, push and, if the dough is a little sticky, sprinkle on more flour.
Kneading, like making bread itself, is also a process. The sticky, gooey lump with which you start changes into a tight, warm ball at the end. Like watching water come to a boil, you can’t always point to the moment when congealed flour becomes a tight ball of bread dough.
Enthusiastic effort may scatter flour about the table, sometimes on the floor and the clothing of the baker and his visitor. Flour should be cleaned from the floor, but a white spray on a flannel shirt or blue jeans personalizes the garment. You suddenly resemble a person whose attire, however faded, washed, ripped or worn, hints of an occupation, or, for my visitor, a preoccupation.
Then the bread has to rise. I’d put it a mixing bowl with a wet cotton dishcloth over the top, and place the bowl near the heater.
“What happens now?”
I had a single bicycle, but no car. I’d suggest we go for a walk down the long driveway to the street that wound around the enormous vacation homes owned by those the locals called “weekend people.” Walk past those, to a collection of shacks and double-wide trailers where the locals lived, and we came to a house with a sign in front, fringed by Christmas lights. Half of that house was a bar, with a few chairs, a pool table, one or two guys in old survival suits who never seemed to leave, and cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The place was really warm inside, possibly to make it easier to drink the beer.
Conversations happen when you walk where cars don’t go too fast, where people aren’t busy running errands. You see movement behind windows exuding warm glows.
Walk further, down to the docks where trucks load up with whatever the watermen managed to pull out of the bay, you could buy a rockfish, have it cleaned and cut so it can be tonight’s dinner.
When we returned to the house the dough in the bowl had grown huge, enormous, amazing. I punch it down and, maybe, knead it a little bit more, then put it in pans that go back to the warmth of the heater.
We have coffee or tea, and then, if the visitor had a car, and the roads weren’t too icy, we go for a ride. A wildlife sanctuary was about two miles away, with boardwalks, observation platforms, a pine forest and the ruin of a house. When the winter sun was a pale blur behind silver clouds, we drove back.
The loaves had risen almost to lip of the pans. I fired up the oven, sliced an onion, carrot and celery stalk. I put the vegetables in my iron skillet, added water, a dash of salt and pepper and some leftover white wine, brought it to a simmer.
Visitors who don’t cook gaze at the picture window at the bay, at the birds that never leave it, and the distant lights that come on as the sun goes down. Visitors who do cook have theories about the best temperature for cooking bread.
A theory is tested and the house is gradually overwhelmed with the most beautiful scent. I open a bottle of wine and put a stick of butter on the table, a jar of jam, a bottle of honey. The loaves come out, brown, fragrant and delicious. I serve the fish. One loaf is eaten almost instantly, without conversation. Good food will do that. It demands all your attention, and you give yourself to it willingly.
The next morning, I make toast with the second loaf. The visitor takes the third and, after a review of the series of numbered roads that will take him back to his productive, overly connected life, I go out with him and watch him drive back down the driveway.
Only a few things I wrote that winter were published. When I think back on what I accomplished that winter, I remember scary rides on the bicycle with my clothes stuffed into a backpack, to the distant coin-operated laundromat with the dryers that never seemed to dry anything, and the gentle things that happened while waiting for bread to rise.