Yeast cake, crumbled just so,
then set to soak and bubble
in a little warm water
I absorbed this patient skill
as a watchful wide eyed child
curled on a chair in a corner
of a warm aromatic kitchen.
Scalded milk, hot water,
shortening and butter,
a little salt and sugar
to help the rising later,
set to barely cool
in the white stoneware bowl
that was my grandmother's,
until they're ready for yeast
of each become instinctual
in a lifetime of making bread.
I don't know where grandma learned
to bake, but imagine she sat
in another kind of kitchen,
heated with a tall tiled oven
somewhere on the fluid borders
of Poland and Russia
before her family fled
uncertainty and revolution,
watching this simple ceremony
and memorizing without realizing
this ritual, just as I would, later.
I sift handsful of flour
from a large plastic box
I store in a low cupboard
the way she stored hers
in a big bin in a bottom drawer,
lined with bright hinged tin
against insects, mice and dampness.
I mix working yeast
into to the hand-warm liquid,
and begin to stir in handsful
of flour, again just so;
She was proud of her skill
with this and other cookery,
although there were few
recipes fully written
because she didn't read much
and printed uncertain and large.
Yet the meals were legendary
and from her I have inherited
the totemic utensils and
unspoken breadmaking lore.
With about half the flour to go,
I discard my long wooden spoon
start working the ragged mass of dough
with clean greased hands
adding more flour handful by handful
until I feel the dough begin to pull
away from the bowl's curved sides
until I can feel it turning ready
to turn out onto the floured table
where I cover it with a tea towel
to allow it to rest and gather.
My grandmother never rested;
she would have six things
going at once before those banquets
dancing between bread, pies, cakes
vegetables, holuptshi, pyrohy,and roasts
to her own rapid internal rhythms
but I am a lesser talent and
prefer to focus only on this,
so wait patiently for a quarter hour
with a cup of coffee, and memories
of brown eyes and ready smile
as much a part of this process
as the growing smell of the yeast
welling out from under the towel
colouring the air in this latter kitchen.
There's magic, I think, in the kneading.
I watched when I was very young
as strong hands at the end of strong arms
prodded punched and rolled and kneaded.
Later her knuckles, swollen with arthritis,
would begin again to loosen and flex
as she caressed it elastic and silky.
Now, the heels of my own arthritic hands
ply a similar sweet smelling mass
feeling the mixture change beneath them
well-worn, but still warming to their chore.
Satisfied that it finally feels right
I lightly grease the dough all over
rest it in the big crockery bowl
that I asked for after she died of cancer
cover it over with a damp tea towel
and set it aside to begin proofing
The aroma becoming heady as it does
the warm kitchen, as much hers, as mine.
When I uncover it later
the dough has grown and lightened
and I set the oven to begin heating
while I punch the mass down
to fine the texture
then divide it into loaves
proof it again, before baking.
In the end, it's just bread,
eaten quickly and forgotten
but in the ritual of baking
I reconnect and recollect
keep alive smells and sights
for one more generation,
why I do all of this, really,
when store-bought is easier;
in this, my grandmother lives still
the aroma carrying us closer
among small moments over years,
little enough trouble
for the best part
of my inheritance.