So, after my Baking Bread Memories post, my daughter Meghann, also a writer, insisted I start another blog and talk about my life through the eyes of food. Not wanting to start over with yet another blog, I decided to edit this one and begin the project my daughter asked me to write in this one.
Besides the food refocus, I could not edit out my Bipolar and Diabetic experiences. I really feel my mental illness as well as my diabetes are intertwined with my life of eating; they are inextricably combined.
Long List of Memories
I began a list last night of times in my life where food took more than center stage and already have 29 potential posts!
Come along with me as I jot down memories for my children and entertainment for you readers.
I read and read before ever trying that first loaf. I’m sure I almost memorized the Basic Recipe by the time I poured the first packet of yeast into the bowl of warm water. After a few months, I never had to look at the recipe again; I could feel the different amounts and measurements.
It’s been 30 years since I’ve baked a loaf of bread, yet I can still smell the scent of yeast as it was mixed with the warm water. I tried lots of different sweeteners to “feed” the yeast… sugar, honey… but settled on dark molasses.
When I learned yeast was a living being, it changed how I saw raw dough. I began treating the dough with more purpose and attention. I respected the yeast more, hence also the dough.
I learned that adding flour (I always used whole wheat flour, spring wheat if possible), even to the counter so the dough didn’t stick, wasn’t the best idea, that dough stops being sticky after kneading until you feel like your hands are going to fall off. Then you knead that long once again.
Before learning to respect the dough, I plopped it into any ol’ bowl, even plastic ones. Forgive me! I didn’t know any better! Once I learned more and shifted my attention, I bought 2 enormous glass bowls, specifically for rising dough. Learning to cover the dough with plastic wrap was an epiphany, but I also got myself 2 white cotton dish towels to protect the dough as it rose. I didn’t realize it, but I’d developed a Bread Baking Ritual.
I always had to set some dough aside for the kidlets, so they could knead at the dining room table. I’d sprinkle flour over much of the table and the kids would be busy for an hour, creating their dough shapes, letting them rise and then waiting to eat them after they came out of the oven. Oh, how I wish I had pictures of those times. I can see it clear as day in my mind, though. It’ll have to reside there forever.
When it was time to “punch” the dough down after it rose the first time, I did just that… punch… finding it amusing to watch the dough curl around my fist. After my this-stuff-is-alive realization, I began being gentle pushing the dough down again. I would use my hand like a spatula and slide against the side of the bowl, watching the (gluten) threads stretch then snap back to the mother-dough.
I nudged the dough down before folding it neatly, then covering it with plastic wrap again and placing the white cotton dish towels on top, allowing it to rise (in half the time as the first rise!) once again.
Into the Oven
After the second rise, I hand-spatula’d the dough down once again before separating it with a plastic scraper into the proper sizes for the bread pans. Over the years, I tried a variety of ways to keep the baked bread from sticking to the pan: oil (yuck), Crisco (not bad), but finally settled on Pam spray. I curled the raw dough into the bread pans, covered them with plastic wrap and the dish towels yet again, allowing them their last rise.
I wanted slashes in the top of my bread. It took at least 100 times before I didn’t deflate my dough trying to get a lovely slash in the top. I tried sharp knives, serrated knives, forks… even razor blades… and always struggled with that part of baking. Eventually, I learned to zip the knife through fast, not slow and deep. Just pull the knife quickly. Poking around for pics, I see there are now dozens of tools to make beautiful scores in your bread. But back in the olden days….
My Nose Knows
It was when I began baking bread that I realized I had an interesting cook’s gift; I can tell when baked goods are finished cooking with my nose. I need no timers, there is a distinct scent that wafts around the house and I’m able to get the bread or brownies or pie out of the oven before any burning occurs and without any under-baking.
Out of the Oven
There is no smell so heavenly as fresh baked bread right out of the oven.
It was a red-letter day the first time I tumped a loaf out of its cooking pan without it falling apart. Once the loaves were out, I put them on cookie racks to cool.
As with the slashes, I had to learn how to cut the bread. This was a shorter learning curve, quickly passing on the dinner knife and non-serrated knife. A sharp serrated knife is definitely the way to save your loaf from looking like crumbs. If you have the capability to let the bread cool even just a few minutes, it won’t fall apart as easily as right out of the oven bread.
And then the butter. Ahhhhh, butter. Not margarine… ever! The fresher the butter the better. Slathering it on, watching it melt into puddles on the bumpy surface, air bubbles holding the creamy sweetness aloft, just waiting for your first luscious bite.
Types of Bread
Besides the Basic Whole Wheat Bread I made every day for years, I experimented with other types, rarely finding success.
I could not ever ever ever get Sourdough Bread right. I tried a dozen “full-proof” recipes, believed the promises that grandma’s 100-year old starter would be The One to give me a lovely loaf of sourdough bread. Nope. It never happened. It was worse trying to make starter myself! It reminded me of how I could never keep a plant alive… cultivating living things just was not one of my fortes.
In Laurel’s Bread Book, she waxes poetic about Desem (Day-zum) Bread. It is a massively complicated process that includes burying your small starter loaf in a 50-pound bag of whole wheat flour for a few weeks, taking it out for air every few days, taking away some of the dough, replacing it with new flour… on and on. And on. (I have not looked at the recipe in 30 years so I could be telling you something totally false, but this is how it was for me trying to make the Desem Bread.) How I thought I could make Desem when I couldn’t even keep sourdough starter alive was beyond me. But I tried. More than once. Failed every single time.
Where I did find success was in Laurel’s Banana Bread recipe. I started with hers, but quickly altered it to my tastes. For real, you need 6-8 ripe (not over-ripe!) bananas (“the bread will only taste as good as the ingredients”… great life lesson right there.) to make this 85-pound loaf of bread. 6-8. In each loaf. Not kidding.
I usually made 2 loaves; one with raisins and one with nuts. I like raisins, Zack liked the nuts. You can put cranberries in there… cran-raisins, chunks of chocolate, cherries… anything your banana heart desires.
The scent of banana bread in the oven is exquisite. (I could smell when it was done as well. No timers for me!) Eating hot banana bread with gobs of butter… I’m nearly weeping remembering the taste.
Passing It On
All of my kids have made bread. I like to believe I had something to do with offering fearlessness when trying those first few times.
Technology has given us bread makers, but I know I would not use one because of the hypnotic deliciousness of kneading the dough, watching it rise, punching it down, watching the second rise, then into the pans for their third rise… all before baking.
Looking from this vantage point, there is something special about the length of time it takes from yeast proofing to butter on hot bread. Lessons in patience, small attentions and watching the making of a staple of life humbles me.
Hmmm… didn’t know I would say so much! Hope the kids enjoy this.
I’m having a flood of food memories and thought I should write them down for my kidlets and others who remember these crazy things.
Red Velvet Cake
I remember the first piece of Red Velvet Cake I ever had. First grade. The perfect square of deep red with white frosting. When I picked up a piece with my metal fork and slid it into my mouth, I’m sure I made a childish moan of delight.
I never saw Red Velvet Cake outside of the south until about 30 years ago. Reading, it seems that the movie Steel Magnolias (a movie I have memorized) brought the dessert out of the southern states about 1989 when the Groom’s Cake, in the shape of an armadillo, was blood red from the cake inside.
I haven’t seen the Jell-O cake in decades, but remember how to make it as if it was yesterday.
• Make a yellow cake in a 9×13 pan
• Let it cool
• Use the back end of a wooden spoon to make a few holes around the cake
• Make 2-3 different kinds (and colors!) of Jell-O
• While the Jell-O is still liquid, randomly pour it into the holes
• Put the now kinda colored cake in the refrigerator for a few hours
• Once the cake is cold, frost it with Cool Whip. (It has to be Cool Whip! Not real whipped cream, but Cool Whip.
I prefer the multi-colored cakes, but I see online it is common to make this for red, white & blue holidays.
Besides how to make this cake, I can taste it as if it was sitting in front of me.
I used to go to Tifton, Georgia with a childhood friend, visiting her grandmother. Tifton is still really small, but back in 1974 or so, it was tiny.
Grandma lived on a farm… cows, chickens, horses, pigs, corn fields… the whole farm thing. Visiting grandma in Tifton remains the only time I’ve ever been to, visited or stayed on a farm.
It was hot as Hades at that house. Not even fans, much less air conditioning. The windows were always open, cicadas and neighing from the horses the only sounds during the windless nights.
Sitting in the kitchen was big fun. Grandma cooked everything from scratch (as most everyone did back then), 3 meals a day, 365 days a year.
Huge, amazing breakfasts of fresh bacon, eggs from the chickens and lots of thickly buttered white bread toast.
When the bacon was done, grandma poured the hot grease on top of the older grease sitting in a Ball Jar next to the stove. Grease upon grease upon grease, sitting for goodness knows how long.
If something was going to stick to the cast iron pan, a heaping spoonful of grease was added to the pan.
Because eggs were a sticky sort of food, bacon grease was the base as they were cooked… bits of bacon fat throughout.
How this bacon fat generation didn’t all die off from heart disease is beyond me.
Certainly all the hard work helped.
Still on the farm with my friend and her grandparents, we girls were sent out to the corn field to pick corn off the stalks. A novice, I had to be shown what was a good piece of corn to pick off, having chosen semi-rotten corn at first.
Once I figured it out, we went about our business and filled the giant basket we were given.
When our baskets were full, we carried them right into grandma’s kitchen where she almost immediately set to work. We were in charge of getting the “angel hair” (silk) and then passed the clean corn to grandma so she could get the kernels off the cob.
This part was the most time-consuming part. It would take hours of manual muscle to scrape, scrape, scrape the cob in order to get what she needed to make the creamed corn.
But, when all the corn was off the cob, the deliciousness really started.
Boiled Peanuts are a part of the Deep South. You are nearly required to say the words with a Southern accent: “Bolt Peanuts.”
Roadside stands are everywhere.
For those who’ve never had the opportunity to taste boiled peanuts, you can also get them in the store… canned!
Here’s what they look like when being made at one of the outdoor locations.
People eat them in different ways. Some will remove the peanut out of the shell with their fingers, others take the peanut out once it is in their mouth… but many, many eat them without removing the squishy shell.
My thoughts on boiled peanuts: THEY ARE REVOLTING. Slimy shells are incredibly gross. Foodie, beware.
Pickled Pigs Feet
Yet another Southern delicacy is Pickled Pigs Feet. Not kidding.
Now, while I’ve never put these in my mouth, they are incredibly popular in all stores, large and small.
Anecdote: My niece was about 3-years old and there was a lower bin filled with pigs’ feet. She asked what they were and mom told her, “Pig’s feet!” My niece looked at the bin, back to mom, then back to the bin and asked, “Then how do the piggies walk?” Smart child.
My childhood friend Angel taught me how to eat grits.
Grits are made from corn (no clue how) and used to have to be cooked, but now come in the instant variety. To me, there’s no difference in the taste, so bring on the instant grits!
Angel first made me grits with sugar in them. Blech.
Then she introduced me to grits with butter. So much butter, the bowl was floating and a bright yellow color.
Restaurants in the south often make grits with cheese. Meh. Bring on the butter.
Swimming in butter is how I eat them to this day.
Simple sandwiches are usually made because by noon it is bloody hot outside. In the olden days, we had no air conditioner. On my friend’s grandparent’s farm, there was never any air conditioner.’
It was not uncommon to eat this simple sandwich: Tomato & Mayonnaise on Wonder Bread.
Note the old plate the sandwich is on in the above picture… gilt around the edge. No one does that anymore because it would spark a fire in the microwave.
And then, the bane of my southern party existence: Pimento Cheese on Wonder Bread.
Pimentos. DisGUSTing. And then some sort of cheese (not real… can’t be real) all mashed together with mayonnaise. Blech!
When I was pre-teen, we’d cram luggage, then ourselves, into the Chevy station wagon (seat belts? HA!) and trek to Shreveport, Louisiana to spend part of the summer with the Cuban side of the family: grandmother, aunt, uncles and cousins.
During one particular visit, the 2 oldest cousins dragged 8-year old me into their clubhouse, wall-papered with Playboy pictures (the first I’d ever seen) and took it upon themselves to tell me how babies were made.
I was so confused.
And once I really learned, I saw they got several facts incorrect. I hope they’ve figured that all out by now.
My parents and aunt and uncle went fishing a couple of times during the summer. I salivated just seeing the fishing poles being put into the cars.
They always came home with gobs of fresh catfish & perch. Still today, catfish is pretty much the only fish I enjoy (memories are strong motivators!).
I remember the scaling of the perch as a messy, gross activity that I stayed far away from lest I be covered in the silvery scales. Whomever was scaling at the moment, when they were tired, were hosed off in the yard to get those tiny flecks of fish-covering off their face and arms, then someone took up the spoon and continued the tedious work.
Happily, catfish have no scales.
Finally, the enormous Bar-B-Que was fired up and I hung around it, feeling the intense heat, watching the cooking catfish, just stopping myself from begging for the first fish off the grill.
Being first in line, I often received those burning hot slabs of flesh.
I learned how to eat fish around the bones fast, not remembering ever eating a hard fish bone. (The soft ones are often just swallowed.)
Besides the BBQ, the catfish was often fried. Which I loved even more. You can never go wrong with breading and being fried in a cast iron pan.
I can taste it even now.
The always-offered hush puppies were also made. I gobbled those suckers up, too. Dipped in ketchup.
A wonderful book I came across many years ago was White Trash Cooking. Between the covers, recipes and photos brought back visceral memories, making me close my eyes for a moment, and feeling/smelling/tasting exactly what I saw in a mere picture.
What a fun revisit to my food memories. Thanks for coming along!