Bread is such basic food. Our paleolithic ancestors plucked wild grain heads, mashed them between stones, mixed the resulting meal with water and cooked it as a gruel or scraped it thin on hot stones for ur-bread. Dried flat breads were easy to transport, and could be chewed as way-bread, or reconstituted into a porridge by crumbling into hot water. By the neolithic, storage pits were dug or drilled into the hills to store semi-domesticated grains. Give us this day our daily bread. Jesus instructed his followers to include this in their prayers – bread for today, not to worry so much about tomorrow’s bread. God will provide. We modern Westerners, though, aren’t content with daily bread. We would like that bread to be sweet, flavorful, and wrapped around some broiled meat and a sauce.
Lent is a good time to reconnect with our ancestral foods. For people like me, from ancestors who walked and sailed Northern Europe, whole grain breads are foundational foods. My Highland ancestors didn’t always bother to get as far as baking the grain mixture; in a hurry while traveling, or when fuel was short, they would soak it in water briefly, and heat it in an iron pan. It doesn’t seem appetizing, but it is filling and nourishing. Cooked in milk or cream, it was called brose, and was the common food in the cottages.
Home baked bread is not difficult, but it can be a production and time-consuming. Instant dry yeast makes the task quicker, with less time waiting for a decent rise to the dough. But it doesn’t have the benefits of sourdough, which combines the yeast and its natural by-products to help break down the less digestible fibres and proteins of wheat and rye.
Commercial bread doesn’t taste like bread to me. It is more like an unsweetened cake, with no hint of the yeast which made it light and porous. Commercial breads often have other dough conditioners that keep the end product moist and cohesive; these are not ingredients one would consider using in the home kitchen. And bread is a simple food on its own; very good bread is made by mixing and kneading flour, yeast, salt and water. Flat bread can be made with just flour and water, then quickly baked on a hot fire. It is a passable food, made better if the flour has taste and body of its own.
Such bread is used as a metaphor in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth – “the bread of truth and sincerity.” The leaven of the Pharisees was a culture of privilege and selfishness; this unleavened bread was plain and unadulterated. Since yeast cultivars were shared within a community, either in a culture like sourdough or by the live yeast skimmed from beer brewing, that “leaven” was unique to that group.
I keep a sourdough culture that I made myself. It is like a low maintenance pet. I have to feed it fresh flour or sugar and transfer it to a clean container about once a week, or double the batch and set some aside if I am baking from it. It’s an unattractive, weird looking mixture, half dark liquid and half spongy residue. I use dry yeast when I want a loaf or bread or batch of dinner rolls in less than ten hours of mixing, rising and kneading.
Sourdough is a little adventure in itself. Catching and cultivating wild yeast is risky; an open bowl of flour and water needs to sit in a warm place for several days, until it starts to bubble like a cold mud geyser or turns spectacular shades of pink, blue or green, in which case it gets thrown out. Yeast and mold are endemic in our environment, and which will settle on your lovely warm bowl of slurry is impossible to predict.
I buy flour 40 pounds at a time, and I don’t always pay attention to how much dry yeast I still have. (I think there is a discernible taste difference between old cake yeast “wet” culture and today’s convenient dry yeast raised breads. Cake yeast doesn’t keep very long, so dry yeast replaced it almost everywhere. Even in Chicago, I have to travel across town to find a store that still sells cake yeast.) Sourdough culture allows me to keep my own culture, and bake real bread. Muffins and cornbread are my fall-back when I need bread but didn’t allow enough time to bake. Flat breads like matzoh were the emergency bread of our ancestors, baked quickly or baked ahead and stored, keeping well with low moisture content.
We may underestimate how important bread products were to our forebears. Christians made a sacrament of bread and wine. “After supper, he took bread, and having given thanks (to God), he broke it, gave it to his disciples…” Jesus equates himself with bread. This may have been the common barley flat bread that most Palestinians in the classical era ate, or it may have been the special matzoh type Passover bread. Matzoh, of course, is a special kind of sacred way-bread, to remind Israel that they came up out of Egypt by the will of God, and that they are designated a holy people. Almost immediately, this communion of bread and wine became the principal sacrament of the Christian community. (Western Christians usually use an unleavened flat bread, while Eastern Christians use a specially prepared yeast bread.)
The heavy dark loaves of previous centuries were indeed “the daily bread” of many people, what sustained them when there was no meat, no milk, no fresh vegetables. The dried grain kept well and could be milled as needed. In the deep winter, there might be nothing else to eat for weeks. Bread literally kept body and soul together.
It is Lent and I am reading retro recipe blogs. Usually, this is a safe activity in Lent, as the food is terribly unappealing. I can eat black bean soup and smugly chuckle at pineapple and frankfurter casseroles bound with minute rice and tomato soup.
But then I hit the cutest Australian retro site, with recipes from the 1970s. (http://retrofoodformoderntimes.com/2013/03/18/retro-food-for-modern-times-invites-you-to-the-worst-cocktail-party-ever/) This was the decade I started cooking on a daily basis, and left home. It was heady times, finally being an adult in my own home, free to shop and cook as I pleased.
Comparing notes with other 70s survivors, I can see I was one of the blessed ones. I had grown up in a household where people still cooked, and were relatively adventurous about food, for rural people in Northern Maine. My parents gave parties where they cooked and served Chinese dishes, from a cookbook I had bought them. We had a set of cookery encyclopedias, and I was tentatively allowed to try recipes from them with my mother’s prior approval. (No wasting ingredients, nothing expensive, nothing that couldn’t be served to my finicky youngest sisters.)
My parents really seemed to like it when I would put together a “fun” meal. There was one dish everyone liked, but just seems revolting now. It was sliced frankfurters in a sauce that I remember as ketchup, brown mustard (that being exotic), some cider vinegar, and celery seed. It was a kind of desperate barbeque sauce. The dogs were slathered in this, wrapped in foil, and baked. It was then transferred to a chafing dish or fondue pot. I think they were served on toasted hotdog buns. I was also the family salad maker, as well as the cake frosting chef. So meals I made would include a huge, multi-ingredient fresh tossed salad and a cake made by my mother, and then buried half an inch deep in butter cream. My mother thought I was too slow in processing baked goods, but in retrospect, I can see she was often too abrupt and hurried, resulting in cakes, pie crusts and breads that were overmixed to the point of being tough and dry.
I think that it would be fun to have a retro 70s party – without the recreational chemicals and herbs because we are strictly legal now – but with the weird chi-chi food, sangria and craft beers. Maybe offer clove cigarettes or Balkan Sobranies because we were so ironically boho retro then, and some people will feel like it is not a 70s event without something burning. (Reeking sticks of perfumy incense smouldering in a flower pot near the front door, because sure that would fool anyone passing by.) Cheese balls, earnest whole-grain peasant bread, fondue, pineapple and sausage onnastick, etc! We used to make these beef stews with lots of red wine and call it boeuf bourguignon, but it was just winy beef stew. When I was vegetarian, it was all lentil curry with lots of garnishes or sweet and sour stir fried vegetables on brown rice. I used to make this tofu green goddess salad dressing/triscuit dip no one else would eat. It was pretty raw with parsley, chives, dill and garlic cloves. And broiling Things onto triscuits – wasn’t that just so 70s? Salami and jarlsberg cheese; tomato sauce and mozzerella; gouda and fines herbes…
I can picture myself back in those days – wearing a long denim skirt, possibly made from an old pair of jeans, a red gingham shirt, and a homespun full apron, either barefoot or in wooden clogs. My hair was very long, and usually covered with a blue or red bandanna. I was Stephie Sunshine.
What I took out of the 1970s was a repertoire of inexpensive vegetarian dishes, the ability to deftly mix, knead and bake whole grain breads, and an appreciation for good beer. (I have never had the income or social circle to acquire a taste for really good wine.) I still like triscuits.
From Beloved Reverend Sister Iskah.
We enter today seeing our need for Jesus’ help. That awareness alone is enough to bring the enemy lurking for ways to turn our attention from God. Some of you may have felt undeserving of God’s redemption, while others may have been tempted to think that all in all you are doing better than most in avoiding sin. Both are lies and today they will dealt with. We are all sinners saved by grace. We all need Him.
Before we journey far from home there is one more thing we must take a look at in order for the desert to be profitable to us, our baptism. In scripture, John the Baptist stood in Jordan “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” (Mark 1:4) People were convicted to be repent, then Jesus, who had no sin, came forward. For a moment John the Baptist (and I’m sure…
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Dear Lord, as we sit hungry today, keep us praying for those whose constant state is physical hunger, whose spiritual need is expressed in a lament. Keep us from luxury and waste, O Lord, so that we are not stealing sustenance from others. Give us humility and a gentle spirit, to see the needs of others, and to use our talents to provide for them, in Your name.
Today begins the journey of Lent. We begin with being marked with a mixing of oil and ashes. There is a symbolic depth in those two things that deserves its own study, but I will briefly cover it here. The anointing of oil has always symbolized God’s calling out someone for a specific reason, like anointing the kings of Israel. In the New Testament oil always symbolizes the pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto God’s children. Either way being anointed was a joyful moment. In the Psalms David says, “You anoint my head with gladness”. Even in Isaiah, he prophesied there would be a time the Israelites’ mourning would be anointed with the oil of joy. Likewise the ashes were always a sign of repentance. Even the ashes of the sacrifices of Israel were handled with care. Ashes were put on the body as a sign of a repentant…
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Ash Wednesday is this week; this means beginning the Lenten disciplines. In this world where there is a huge gap between those of us who HAVE and the many, many who HAVE-NOT, fasting is a necessary discipline. First, it teaches us to do without, because in every life there are seasons of having less than we need, whether it is food or love; second, it puts us in solidarity with the poor, who daily suffer a lack of necessities; third, by cutting back what we spend on food, we have more money to share with those whose income does not meet their need. Keep the fast: Vegan and vegetarian meals, substituting beans and legumes for protein, with rice and whole grains and simply prepared vegetables. If fruit is expensive, skip it. Make time to cook and bake for yourself, which means giving up other pursuits like television, computer games and shopping. Go to church and pray regularly, so that your fast is not just self-congratulatory acts. The money you are not spending on groceries and self-indulgences then goes to a charity, or directly to the poor.
I am not open to hearing any excuses or exceptions. If you must make them, do not lessen the resolve and dedication of others, so keep them to yourself.
Anyone who even brings up Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers will be given a penance. My experience with Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers is that more people come to them than will attend church throughout Lent. No fast, no feast.