Ruby pulled open the oven door and lifted out golden-topped crescent rolls. The yeasty aroma filled the kitchen, and the burst of hot air fogged her glasses. She set the pan on top the stove and wiped her glasses with her well-worn apron.
At the table, Naomi and Ruth, her grade-school daughters, sat ready with small plates, a knife, oleo-margarine, and grape jelly. “I’m glad we’re having company tonight,” said Naomi, not that Ruby only baked when there were dinner guests.
Baking bread was in Ruby’s DNA. Her Mennonite ancestors had migrated across the ocean from South Russia with zwieback, double-decker rolls, packed into trunks. The zwieback, translated as “twice baked,” had been toasted, and the crisp, crunchy pieces had endured the days of travel, without molding. Even after her family had settled in to farm life in Central Kansas, and didn’t need to preserve food for such long-term sustenance, they would toast zwieback and crush the crispy crumbs them into a cup of milk, or hot Postum, a roasted-grain coffee substitute, created by Post Cereal founder C.W. Post in 1895.
Ruby also baked raisin, rye-graham, and molasses breads in two-pound Fleischmann’s yeast cans. The soft circular slices had no crust. Decades later, Naomi would treasure those same cans, and make cinnamon bread as well.
When Ruby’s physician husband, Elmer Gaede, accepted a position with Public Health Services in Tanana, Alaska, a remote Athabascan Indian village, she learned about Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, a 3-inch-round, thick cracker, which had come over with sailing ships in the mid-1800s. The flat, dry, saltless cracker became a staple in the Alaskan villages and continues to be so today. Whether zwieback or Pilot Boy Bread, the concept was the same: long shelf-life and basic nourishment.
In March 2020, flour and yeast flew off the shelves. What instigated the buying frenzy? What need was acute? What did “bread” mean on an emotional or physical level? Did it remind people of sitting as a child, in the safety and warmth of grandma’s kitchen, watching her knead dough on a floury pastry cloth, and anticipating the mouthwatering outcome? Or, did the first-time making of bread offer a sense of confidence that the newbie baker could take care and provide for him or herself? Was it touch therapy of massaging the pliable dough? Was it a womb-like experience of protection in a world where predictability of everyday life had been shattered? Whatever the reason, homemade bread took on a significant, primal meaning – and the ingredients flew off the store shelves.
Every culture has a “bread,” whether tortillas, Naan, fry bread, Challah, baguettes, cornbread, flatbread, pita, lavash, pandesal, or injera. The Bible often speaks of bread. God sent bread down from heaven so the wandering Israelites would be fed. Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread. Jesus broke bread with his disciples. In John 6:35, Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me shall never hunger…” He understands our basic needs. He is our comfort and hope. He is good therapy. He is good bread. He is the warmth of grandma’s kitchen.