By Sean Dietrich
The email arrived this morning. The subject line read, “Bread.” The message read:
“My 11-year-old granddaughter, Bella, makes bread and wonders if you will eat some if she makes it for you?”
“We are not sick with COVID or anything like that. Bella’s mom died from breast cancer and Bella has started baking lately because her mother once enjoyed baking. She really wants you to try her bread.”
Well, let me start by saying that I am flattered, Bella. As it happens, I have a long history with bread. In fact, when I was a kid, I was built like a miniature loaf of bread.
Let me explain. When I was around your age I was a chubby redhead. My chubbiness was partly because, after my father passed, to cope with our new grief my mother started baking bread every day.
Looking back, I don’t really know why she was making bread so often. Perhaps because it was cheap. Or maybe because she had a lot of pent-up energy she needed to get out.
Then again, maybe she was baking bread because she was simply trying to fatten me up. Which is possible. My mother believed redheaded boys were much cuter when they were chunky.
And I know this because whenever she would pinch my soft white belly, she would say, “That’s Mama’s handsome, chubby wubby wittle wedhead.”
For years, I believed that being a chubby wubby wittle wedhead was a good thing.
So, I ate a lot of sourdough, French, whole wheat, rye, cinnamon raisin and white bread each morning. Almost daily, my mother would leave these hot loaves sitting out, cooling, and everyone would pause to admire them like works of sculpture.
This was powerful bread. It could beckon you from across the house. And when you saw it sitting in the windowsill, steaming in the early sunlight, you would gravitate toward it like a mosquito to a porchlight.
Her bread was soft, hot, pliable, rich, thick and when you placed a hunk into your mouth, bathed in butter, you almost swore you heard Aretha Franklin singing in the distance.
Thus, I grew up appreciating bread. In fact, I became a snob about bread. When people tried to feed me store-bought bread, I turned up my nose. Because compared to homemade bread, store bread isn’t fit for scrubbing oil stains off driveways.
When I hit my teens, however, my bread consumption habits had gotten out of control. I needed an intervention. I was starting to realize how chubby I was, and my weight humiliated me. I began to hate my own reflection.
This was also an age when I was becoming interested in girls. So I was spending a lot of time on my hair, and often wearing enough cologne to induce asthma attacks among the elderly and infirm. But no amount of beautification changed my appearance. Whenever I passed a mirror all I saw was plump little Danny Partridge smiling back at me. I would pinch my belly and want to cry.
So one day, I made a big decision. I walked into Mama’s kitchen, sat at her table and told her I was done eating bread.
“No bread?” she said. Then she checked my forehead for a temp. “Do I need to go get the special thermometer?”
“No. I’m not sick.”
“But no bread?”
“You look pale, how about a sandwich?”
I could tell this information was not computing in my mother’s brain. Because no sooner had I finished speaking than she had cut a slice of pumpernickel about the size of a mass-market hardback. “Here, eat this, you’ll feel better.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m done with bread. I’m tired of being chubby. I want to be skinny like magazine people.”
My mother’s face changed. She obviously realized there was no changing my mind.
So Mama quit making bread. Each morning I would pass by barren windowsills and a graveyard-like kitchen. I started eating a lot of celery with salt, which is the same appetizer they serve in hell.
Certainly, I lost some weight, but I lost something else, too. Joy. Without bread, life was pretty dull and gray.
But then everything changed one day when I was 15 years old. I’ll never forget it.
My mother found me crying in my bedroom, facedown on my bed. She asked what was wrong. I told her the news. Some girl had broken my heart.
And that was all it took. Within two minutes, all bets were off. Our kitchen was afire with smells and the suffocating heat of a GE range oven.
She used a sourdough starter from our neighbor, Miss Carol, and immediately the trademark scent wafted through the hallways like a melody.
Mama spent the afternoon dusting the countertops with ivory flour, kneading huge lumps of white with her fists, punching the dough hard enough to scare the dogs.
When she opened the windows, the whole neighborhood was filled with the aroma of handmade, barely-legal bread.
The scent must have awoken the entire county. Because soon, local cats and nearby vagrants began gathering on our porch. Visitors from other towns suddenly appeared at our doorstep, alongside construction workers, mailmen, firemen, UPS drivers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, televangelists, various vacuum salesmen and the entire cast of “Cheers.” They were all sniffing at our windows.
When the hot loaves came from the oven, Mama buttered a slice and placed it onto a plate. And many years later, even though I am much older now, I can still close my eyes, travel backward and remember the overpowering feeling of my mother’s love.
May you always remember that same feeling too, Bella.
Bring on the bread, sister.