Letting it rise

Learning to bake a good loaf of bread is not an easy thing, especially when you've got a broken bread machine.


Anne Lamott
June 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

My friend Barbie gave me a bread machine last week. I did not really want it, although I have always loved bread -- the taste of bread, the smell, the images. Unleavened Passover loaves, in memory of Hebrews who had to leave Egypt so fast that they didn't have time to let the bread rise. Communion bread, broken to you; as Jesus was broken that one might live, and in the sharing of brokenness comes oneness, and in that oneness, freedom.

I met Barbie when I was three years sober. She was about my age and also sober, with long, straight hair and round, brown eyes. She had early-stage multiple sclerosis. We got to be friends and she gave me fresh-baked bread from time to time. She was baking five loaves a day in bread machines that were all over her small house, and these loaves made the greatest toast, including, on several occasions, Melba toasts for my teething son. A freshly baked loaf, hot and fluffy, gives way so soon to bread that's slightly stale. But toast is the loaf's second soul: lighter, a little rough, perhaps more masculine but still comforting, like a soft beard. There is no food I love more than toast.

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In fact, my first interesting magazine pieces were about toast. I was in my 20s, living on a tiny houseboat and broke, but had scraped together just enough money for a toaster oven. I began throwing brunches billed as Cavalcades of Toast where I provided bread and the toaster oven, and some guests brought jars of jams and jellies, and cheeses, and others brought champagne so you could pretend you weren't really "drinking" at breakfast. But these were bountiful drunken meals: Stone Soup meets "The Lost Weekend."

Then I decided to parlay my toast acumen into cash, and got a gig writing a column called "Toast of the Town" for a local avant-garde magazine. The idea was that I'd invite visiting dignitaries to my house for toast, and while we were eating, I'd interview them.

Like many brainstorms in my life, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But right off the bat we discovered that almost no one in his or her right mind, strung out on a publicity tour, wanted to travel across the Golden Gate Bridge to eat toast with some odd nobody. Then we got a bite: Harry Dean Stanton agreed to do an interview if I would conduct it in his hotel room in San Francisco.

So one Saturday I packed up my toaster oven, a loaf of bread, butter and jars of jam and honey, and took a bus into the city. I arrived at Stanton's hotel around noon, was announced by a skeptical concierge, and moments later found myself standing at the door of Stanton's room, with my toaster oven.

It was not until this precise moment that I had any second thoughts whatsoever, and of course by then it was too late. The door opened, and rumpled, bleary-eyed Harry Dean Stanton peered out at me. Then his gaze dropped down to the toaster oven.

"Yes?" he asked.

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"Hi, I'm Anne Lamott and I'm here for the interview." He stared at me with what looked like terror.

"What's that?" he asked, indicating my toaster oven. I explained what it was, and that I was going to make him some toast.

"But I don't want any toast."

"But see, my column is called 'The Toast of the Town,' and so what I do is to make some toast, and then we talk ..."

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"But I don't want any toast ..."

Finally we compromised: I made myself toast. He ordered coffee from room service and we had a long marvelous conversation about art and God.

The magazine ran three of my Toasts of the Town, and then it folded. I went back to giving intime toast parties. I brought bread, store-bought, ready-made, as I would no more have thought to bake a loaf than to raise chickens for eggs.

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It was a shame, too, because good memories of baking bread might have slaked my spirit's terrible hunger, in a way that the spirits I was swilling then could not touch. To come upon a friend making bread, the scent of yeasty dough baking, can send me backward into a wavy Mvbius strip of memory, looping back into the kitchen of our house where my mother made bread -- white bread, black bread, Danish pastry. She kneaded her dough like a brawny masseuse, wiping at her damp, furrowed brow with the back of her sleeve, letting it rise, punching it down -- Take that! And thus wafting through the Harold Pinter dialogue and tension of my youth were comforting smells from a world of gingham aprons.

That smell of dough is so intimate, and it pleases me in the way of the other private smells. Maybe we're heartened to remember that we are animals who smell, in the active sense, and who give off smell -- clean or salty or rank or sweet or new. It is how we recognize our mothers even before we discover them making bread. It's how in the wilds and deep inside, they recognize us.

By the time I was 30, I had probably baked bread half-a-dozen times. But I was always drunk and stoned then, and if it tasted good, well, then again, so did raw bok choy with mayonnaise, if it came to that. Back then, I had no stamina for failure or ineptness. Then, 13 years ago when I got sober, I began to learn both how to grow up finally and how to be a discoverer again, like children are. And I found that to learn how to do new things, you probably had to be willing to be bad at first. This was very painful. It meant that, for instance, if I wanted to learn to play Mozart sonatas, I had to be willing to butcher "The Farmer in the Dell" first for a couple of weeks. Then I might gaze to a future where I was willing to butcher a Beatles song.

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So I learned to be inept at a lot of cool things, like motherhood, and daughter-to-an-aging-mother-hood, and most recently, bread-baking. Barbie has sneakily begun teaching me how to make bread; you have to watch out for those people in wheelchairs. They're often up to something.

Over the years I watched Barbie's MS progress. She began to need metal crutches sometimes after she'd had a flare-up, but was still driving around in an old, orange VW bug that was always filled with dogs. Her long, brown hair and a lot of dogs' ears streamed out the window as she drove by, and she was almost always in a good mood. I do not normally like this in a person, because I do not trust it. She had some huge losses besides the MS -- her boyfriend had cancer, her brother whom she adored had died in a plane crash -- but she was still usually counting her blessings, out loud. She felt that complaining was an insult to God: Here she was, alive, sober, still able to drive, with three or four dogs, several cats, half a dozen birds, friends, a loving God.

Too much gratitude usually drives me a little crazy. I secretly believe that people who talk about their blessings are usually extremely angry, and rather than call out a cheery greeting when they pass you in your garden, they'd really like to lob a bomb at you. But I didn't mind it with Barbie, because she is the real thing, and she had what I wanted: gratitude, and thus, joy. Also, that great white bread -- tough and tender at the same time. You had to fight a little to get to the pillow.

Over time her MS took away a bit of strength here, coordination and control there. Soon she was always on metal crutches, but still driving in her old, orange bug with all those dogs in the back seat. Then the crutches gave way to a walker, and yet somehow she still drove, and got around, and then all of a sudden you didn't see her around anymore.

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So I started going to her house. She was still usually cheerful, tooling around in a wheelchair with all those dogs and cats and birds. There were five bread machines going at any given time, on the floor in different rooms of the house. She didn't just bake for me and her other sober friends. As she put it once, maybe God has absconded with her brother, but then he or she had given her a fire department. The firefighters at the local fire station, who were all men, had responded at various times when she had fallen from her wheelchair and needed help getting up; they were paged by the alarm button she wore on a necklace. Then, as she became sicker, they fell into the habit of stopping by to check on her often. "Now I have a whole lot of brothers," she says. She cannot drive herself around anymore, and it is hard to walk because her legs are often rigid with spasm and have to be folded up like legs of a card table. So the firemen built her a wheelchair ramp, and they come by to help her into other people's cars when she needs to go to the doctor. They bring her sacks of pet food, and flour. So she bakes them bread.

Dough is always either being mixed or kneaded, rising or baking, and her house smells like the first long week of creation: salt and water, the yeast of life, the earth at its most elemental, feathers, seed, fur, beginnings, decay.

Here's my theory: Barbie's body is so limited and uncomfortable in this world, but by baking she is able to present these men and their big appetites with an ideal body of bread, soft and warm. She is saying, "This is the best I can do. I measured it, paid attention, it's warm and it will fuel your great work. And when you eat it, think of me."

That's what it's like to eat Barbie's bread. But horribly, last week when I went to see her, she didn't just give me a loaf of her wonderful bread. She gave me a bread machine. Like I said, I did not really want this thing, but she wanted me to have it, so I took it. I thought I could just bring it home and let it live next to the never-used ice-cream machine. They could be roommates.

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I decided to try it out first, though, partly because I knew it would make her happy. I bought all the ingredients, and then followed the most basic white-bread recipe. I measured out water, oil and lemon juice and put it in the bread pan, which goes inside a cabinet the size of a fat 1-year-old child. It was on my kitchen counter, looking like a cross between a small dormitory refrigerator and R2-D2. I added salt, dry milk, sugar, flour and yeast; closed the lid, plugged it in, turned it on.

Then I stretched out on the couch with a book while my bread baked.

Almost immediately I heard loud ticking from the kitchen, and went to investigate. TICKTICKTICK. My bread machine sounded like it had a bomb inside, and I imagined Barbie as a terrorist, smiling sinisterly on a Stairmaster. I reread the manual, wondering if I had pushed the kneading blade in properly. I reached my hand down through all the guck to the blade, and tightened it.

I growled. Ten minutes in, and already a nightmare.

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I tiptoed away hoping for the best, but soon heard TICKTICKTICK. I went back and tinkered some more and finally figured out what was wrong -- the bread pan was not pushed down all the way onto the heating coils. I pushed it down, and soon my machine was making a low, bready hum.

I lay back down on the couch, pleased with myself.

"Is your bread ready yet?" Sam called from his room.

Minutes later there was a new noise. If I heard this grinding in my car, I would assume that the rear axle was working loose. The bread machine thunked and rumbled, like the washer does when the load is unbalanced. There was a sickening crash: bread machine death.

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Sam tore out of his room and together we discovered the bread machine on the floor, dead, lying on its side, the bread pan nearby, and a round blob of dough beside it like a rejected organ. It looked like it had committed suicide. R2-D2 egged on by Jack Kevorkian.

"Oh, my God!" Sam said, and looked at me with wide-eyed alarm, like, "Boy are you going to get in trouble when mom comes home." Then he remembered that I was mom, and he covered his mouth as if to muffle his scream. My self-loathing blossomed like a time-lapse film of desert flowers.

"What should I do?" I asked.

"Maybe you can still get it to work," he said sensibly. So I put it back on the counter, and tried to get the lid to fit back down over the insides. It was badly askew, the lid hanging half-an-inch over the side of the box. I loosened screws and tried to realign it, but couldn't. So I closed the lid, even though it looked broken, and decided to try again and just see where we stood.

I prepared a new batch of ingredients; plugged it in.

Two hours later I had a chef's-hat-shaped loaf of golden-brown bread. You could have put it on the cover of Sunset magazine. I stood gazing with excitement and I thought, "I am going to get to take Barbie some soon!" God ... It's just amazing: You have a pile of flour, some water and sugar and salt and yeast, and then not too long later, you have a cloud that nourishes. Out of what looks like dirt and ash comes the gift of life, wrapped in an aroma as fresh as mountain air. "Oh, God," the mystic Rumi wrote, "turn me into a well-baked loaf."

Now, it turned out to be terrible bread. It was almost entirely lacking in taste, and the texture was perhaps more like sawdust than I'd hoped. Now, weren't you expecting for it to be fluffy and delicious, so we could have another upbeat alchemical story on our hands? Because -- I won't lie -- that was not the case. Until I thought to toast it, and slather it with butter and share it with Sam. And it was so, so good.


Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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