The Past for the Future

You have to be a little bit worried. People don’t know how to bake bread. They can’t tell wheat from oats in the field. They don’t recognize a jar of baker’s dry yeast when they see it.

To most Americans, bread comes out of a plastic bag, purchased at the store. “Fresh” means it hasn’t reached the Sell By date. It has all kinds of strange ingredients they can’t pronounce. Left in a room with an oven, wheat flour, water, sugar, salt, yeast and a little olive oil they would not know how to turn it into something edible. Does this bother anyone else?

Bread baking is Food 101. No,it is Food Kindergarten. You need to know this to survive. What is going on?

What have we been sold, that someone else can do this better than we can? That we don’t have to touch the raw ingredients of our food? That we are busy, important people who don’t need to bake ever, because we have servants? Even Marie Antoinette knew how to milk a cow. Well, she and her friends used to go out to the model farm at Versailles and play at barn chores. It is a weird thing: sort of like Paris Hilton and “The Simple Life,” only with guillotines at the end of the season.

Are we not real people anymore, doing real things, like digging a garden or canning the tomatoes? Are we sold completely on convenience? (For convenience you can substitute the words “tasteless, lacking in nutrition, processed food items.”)

Whenever I bake a loaf of bread people here are impressed. “Do you bake?” they ask. I can’t imagine anyone in my hometown asking my mother that. Women baked. My father baked, and still does, and he makes a fine apple pie. Mastering the simple chemistry of flour, water, leavening, and heat was a basic life skill, like tieing shoes. (I was born before Velcro.)

When I do spinning demonstrations, someone is sure to say, “Oh, I could never do that!” But I then point out that all women learned to spin up to about 150 years ago. All women learned to spin, usually by the age of ten. Of course you could do it. It was once a universal skill.

Breadbaking is a universal skill. You would be hard-pressed to find a culture that didn’t have some form of  ground-grain product. Homemakers made bread the way we heat frozen food in the microwave. They didn’t even think about it. They just did it, often every day. Of course anyone can do it. Not so long ago, anyone did. Everyone knew how. (Well, maybe the women knew, but that might be an assumption. Men cooked for themselves even in the traditional past. We still see this campfire cooking attitude in men who love the barbeque grill, but not the electric range. It’s a cultural memory of travelling in the wilderness without the women.)

To make this blunt: we’d better pull ourselves together and start learning these basic skills. The price of wheat and grain is high right now. A loaf of low-quality (spongey, flavourless, soft) bread is at least $1.50 right now; good bread is $3 and climbing. I haven’t figured it out completely, but I think I can bake a loaf of bread for less than 80 cents. I can sew a dress for less than $10. I can spin a skein of wool yarn for next to nothing, since I already have the fleece. There are a hundred thousand ways to get by without hitting the mall once a week.

Okay, you have to settle for a few things. Nothing’s going to have a designer label on it unless you put it on. (Clip it out of an old dress, for all I care, or make ones that say “Made by Me.”) Things you make have a good chance of lasting for a long time, if you do a good job of it, so you won’t have an excuse to go pleasure-shopping very soon. You won’t need a platinum credit card if you make it yourself. No one is going to notice you in the high-status store, and go green with envy. (I can’t believe anyone envies anyone else for what they own. Shouldn’t you pity them?)

So take a chance. Get a cookbook or go on line or call Grandma, and learn to bake bread. All you need is water, wheat flour, yeast, sugar, salt and a bit of oil. You can put it in a loaf pan or on a cookie sheet. You probably already have an oven. Your first effort might be a bit wacky, but most likely not. You’ll love it, your family will love it, and you will start connecting to how God meant things to be, where He gave us the resources and we were to make sure we didn’t run out of them. The earth is meant to be sustainable.


5 thoughts on “The Past for the Future

  1. I can do the bakings, but my dressmaking skills aren’t that great. Also, how are you making a dress for 10? Is that counting the pattern price? What fabric are you buying that’s inexpensive but durable? I can only find thin, low quality cotton for that price in my area.

  2. I love baking bread. Its much easier than people imagine, especially with a bread machine. I had to teach myself to make bread by hand when we moved onto our sailboat 3 years ago. We don’t have a refrigerator and only minimal electricity onboard so food needs to be fresh or dried. Well like you said, the first few loaves were a little weird but I learned and got better each time. Now when I bring fresh bread to harbor pot lucks, everyone is surprised and I give away lots of recipes for it. Now that we’re home I have a bread machine that makes it for me. All I have to do is dump the right amounts in and push a button. 2 hours or so later: fresh bread and the house smells wonderful all afternoon. Either way, as with most food, home made is much cheaper and healthier than store bought. Definitely a skill worth knowing.

  3. First, the sewing. I was blessed with the gift of a free commercial grade machine that wasn’t working, and it took my husband about fifteen minutes to fix it. A really good machine makes the difference, although I have sewed dresses by hand. It’s worth looking on Kijiji or craigslist or what ever is the local equivalent of a swap/cheap price listing. Fabric is something I scavenge shamelessly. Women have been great fabric hoarders – my own grandmother had boxes and dressers full of it. I got some good pieces from the estate of an elderly woman whose family had donated boxes of it to the church we attended, along with some cool vintage patterns. You can look at flea markets, garage sales, or thrift stores in amongst the bedspreads and tablecloths. Good linen tablecloths can be used for dresses, aprons and caps; oversized clothes can be taken apart and cut down. I make patterns from my favourite dresses by tracing them onto used gift wrap. (Add the pleats and seam allowance.) Our Canadian fabric chain has a yearly membership plan that offers additional discounts and specials. Look in the back rooms of fabric stores for the on sale heavy duty stuff, or ask for suiting fabrics. My clothes are very simple in construction, but usually include pleats. Once you get the hang of it, it’s simple. I never use zippers, so that gets rid of one of the most complicated parts!

    I borrowed a bread machine, and didn’t like it. The loaves were always lopsided. Maybe it was my drafty kitchen!

  4. I read this a while back and thought to myself, Man, that’s true! I have no clue how to bake. So one day when I had extra time, I made my first batch of bread from a recipe off the back of a bag of flour and pictures of how to knead from a cookbook. I was very surprised at how well it turned out. Just today I finished my second batch. Again, it might not be perfect, but it is edible and I am just so amazed at how good it feels to make it myself.

    Thank you for this inspiration.

    • I’m glad thee found the post useful. I am about to bake bread today, too. Bread is hard to ruin. It just wants to happen. Yes, Lord, give us this day our daily bread! God bless thee!

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