Back in the 1970s, the status symbol for school-aged children who brought their lunch in a brown bag (we did that back then) was Wonderbread.
White, squishy, soft, building our little bodies in 12 different ways — combined with bologna it represented the pinnacle of elementary school sophistication and finesse.
And of course, my mother, being who she is, did not buy the stuff in the white bag with the blue and red and yellow bubbles spattered joyously — like balloons — about, but rather, the substitute — still white, still squishy and soft (my brother used to roll it into a ball and throw it at me), the exact same thing but it came in the wrong bag.
Nobody else knew this, but I did. My power lunch may have looked like the real thing but it wasn’t, ultimately being nothing more than an ersatz proxy of the genuine article, although what the genuine article was supposed to be is a conundrum.
While my mother more than once was a dampening influence on the social status of her youngest child (I have inherited this trait), she was quirky, which meant that, far more times than I realized, she came up with innovative, unusual ideas totally out of step with the culture of her day.
One of these was making sour dough bread from scratch, a family project involving two weeks of stirring a grey slurry that looked more like something you’d slather on your walls that insert into your alimentary canal. Eventually the concoction was pronounced ready, mixed with yeast and flour, kneaded, shaped, and slipped into the oven.
Seven of us — two adults and five children — watched through the miniscule window of the oven as the bullet-shaped loaves plumped and browned into something that was completely foreign to our visual experience. (I tell these stories to the progeny and they stare: “Were minds, as well as pursuits, so much simpler back then?”)
When the aroma hit our olfactory glands we collectively oohed.
But it wasn’t until the bread came out of the oven that the action really started: it takes seven people less than five minutes to completely annihilate two loaves of freshly baked sour dough bread, and that we did, staring disconsolately at the empty cookie sheets and wondering if we had to wait two weeks to repeat the experience.
“If we’re going to eat it that fast,” my mother pronounced, “it’s not worth making.”
“But we haven’t wasted it,” I pointed out, my eight-year-old brain instinctively referencing the ultimate sin of leaving good food — which back then consisted of cow’s tongue, liver and onions, and boiled zucchini — on the plate, wasted, when it could have been feeding the starving children of whatever country my mother had heard about in the news that day.
While we never repeated the experience (my argument must not have been as strong as I thought), its memory never left me, and when I was 15 and alone in the house with a bag of flour, a packet of yeast, and some water, I made my first loaf of bread.
I have never looked back.
There is something exhilarating, empowering, and enervating in making something that you are accustomed to buying, and bread is a great — and cheap — way to start. My gift to you this week — my wonderful readers — is my recipe for Quick, Cheap, Simple French Bread.
(By the way, the artwork on these pages is all done by Steve Henderson of Steve Henderson Fine Art, and it is available as originals, signed limited edition prints, miniature studies, and note cards — something for every empty wall and household budget. Check out the site, find something you like, and contact us. We’ll help you make fine art a part of your life.)