Sunday, October 26, 2008

Baking Bread

I baked bread today for the first time since I got to Bolivia. When I lived in Vermont, all those years ago, I baked at least once a week. I’m still surprised at the lessons that baking bread have to offer.

The first thing bread taught me was the organic nature of redemption and growth. I kept a starter in the fridge – a foul smelling, yellow soup of sugar and yeast. I marveled that you could take this bubbling, rotting stew, add flour, let them rot some more, and this somehow yields marvelous results. In my university days, organic processes of rotting – making bread, making beer, making compost, planting tomatoes – offered a solution to the waste that I saw around me in American life, and gave me perspective about my own personal growth.

When I moved to Vermont, I learned to love how it tasted. I loaded each loaf of bread with butter and buttermilk. I made cinnamon rolls that even my granny wouldn’t have wanted to butter. I baked apple pies that relied entirely on the quality of Vermont’s apples and the butter in the crust. I worked hard, kept a garden, played in the long summer days, skied and camped in the bright winter snows and baked rich, savory loaves of bread every couple of days.

Last night, among the idas and venidas of my life in Bolivia, I made a pair of loaves and a pizza, using packaged dry yeast. The result was a loaf of bread that, while it lacked a little flavor, had a nearly perfect texture and color. It toasted well. I ate a piece with butter and honey while I listened to Johnny Cash sing “If We Never Meet Again.” Bolivia is a country where people move to chase economic opportunities wherever they may appear. Cortadores and lomeadores who I met in the Alto Beni last month go where there is work cutting and hauling wood. I know people who haven’t seen their own brothers for years and who don’t know where - or whether - they are living.

Suddenly a depression era hymn promising reunion with your loved ones faraway on that beautiful shore – and faith in another meeting place in heaven – seemed more lovely and appealing than it ever had before.

Fresh, homemade bread, without preservatives, doesn't keep. By tomorrow morning, the bread I baked yesterday will be to stale for anything but french toast.

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