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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Stillborn & Reeking

May 1, 1997

Durn it.  Gol durn it to heck.

Forgive me, please.  You know that I am a woman not often given to outward displays of passion, much less outbursts of profanity, but this is getting serious.

We are finally getting settled into our new home, setting up the furniture, filling the pantry and shelves.  Yesterday, Phil discovered a terrific sale on flour and today I will perform an act of great symbolism in our household: I will whump up a batch of bread.  Or try to, anyway. I seem to have come full circle in the bread-making department.

Back in the Lodge years, my mother made great bread - big, crusty loaves with a dense, brown-speckled grain - and our family ate a lot of it.  We had it plain, with butter and jam or cheese, for brekkie; or toasted, with butter and jam or cheese, for brekkie.  Ma used it for desserts and for breading meats; for soups, sauces, and poultices and we ate it for snacks, for a tide-me-over, for noon or midnight lunches.

Bar brod med tingests pa - unbuttered bread with a generous spread of Eagle brand milk - was our dearest treat, followed closely by "marv-mad," plain bread covered in thin layer of marrow, sprinkled with salt and cut four ways that I, and my three siblings, might all have a taste.

That last was a real kick.  On soup-building days, we would find every excuse in the book, and some that weren't, to be in the kitchen, underfoot and palpitating for the pronouncement, "The bone is cooked."

And out it would come, glistening and sleek with gelatin, stringy shreds of meat still clinging to it's ivory surface and stuck about, here and there, with bits of carrot and barley.  And we'd watch as Ma cut a thin slice from a big brown loaf.  Then, protecting her hand with a cloth, she'd hold the steaming bone over the bread and delicately probe it's cavity with a thin knife.  Glop! the greyish white marrow would fall out, all of a quivering piece, to be leveled, sprinkled, divided with scrupulous fairness, and nibble by nibble, savoured to its last flavourful globule.  Lord, it was good to be alive!!

But I digress.  Actually, I procrastinate.  I feel I should tell you about my bread - or whatever it is that I'm making these days - but I'm so ashamed.

All those years in the baking business, people came to me for counsel. Why did their bread not rise?  What caused the texture of crumbling particle board?  How did I get such a lovely loft to my loaves when theirs slumped dejectedly on the cooling rack, soggy and smelling of fungus?  And I'd laugh, a modest, girlish little tinkle, and then dispense advice and direction in equal portions, confident, authora- tative, and totally insufferable.  Butter would have remained a cool golden lump on my tongue as I tripped lightly through a tulip bed of kneadings until satiny and degrees Fahrenheit and first and second risings, ad nauseum.  "It's easy," I would trill.  "Just do thus and that and this and it should turn out nice as mine." 

How did I get so complacent?  And smug?  I mind the time, not so long ago - well, it was about 30 years, truth be told - when no amount of instruction from my mother in combination with the most detailed recipe in the Better Homes Cookbook (the New Bride's Bible) could help me produce a decent loaf.  All day in the production, hesitantly I would bring it to the table, stillborn and and reeking of delivery.

"I think you're getting the hang of it now, Ellen," my brother, Aksel, would mumble through a tester slice piled high with thick slabs of sharp cheddar.  "At least, this time the cheese isn't falling out through the bottom."  Glumly, I regarded him.  Yeah, I thought, you'd say anything not to jeopardize an invitation to dinner.  Phil was a tad less tactful.  "Is it supposed to have this wow in the top?  And why does it smell like mushrooms?"

Eventually, a good friend, Kay Jamieson, took me in hand and showed me how very easy it was to make good bread.  "Nothing to it, my dear.  For every loaf you want, take one cup of water, l teaspoon salt, l each tablespoon lard and sugar, l teaspoon yeast and 2 cups of flour.  Mix like sixty, knead in a little more flour until it blisters. Raise 'er, shape 'er, bake 'er, and Bob's your uncle.

Well, Bob wasn't exactly my uncle at first but gradually I applied Kay's formula and as the muscles developed in my arms and back, I began to get the hang of "blistered" dough.  A rhyme I'd learned as a child came into my head as I pummelled.  "Mother, mother, kneading dough." (Push) "In and out her knuckles go." (Pull) "Til the sticky, shapeless lump," (Fold) "Grows a pillow, smooth and plump." (Turn.)

Big, plump loaves appeared on our table.  Enchanted with my success, I branched out into other breads, whole wheat and rye, dallied with dinner rolls and cinnamon buns, flirted with brioche and bagels... There was no stopping me.

We bought the Lodge from my parents, closed it, turned it into a bakery, the better to showcase my new talents.  The business, doubled, tripled.  We bought a mixer.  That was wonderful -  no more pummelling and blistering, just thrown in the ingredients, turn a switch and allow the dough hook to make the smooth, plump pillow.  We bought  more ovens in which to bake the mixered, mass-produced bread and pastries, hired people to sell my fragrant wares.  I grew famous.  And confident.  And authoritative. And insufferable.

Last June, we sold our little bread mine, our Cinnamon Mine, so to say.  After a short vacation, I rose one day with an urge to bake bread.  Stillborn and reeking, I brought it to the table.  Embarrassed for me, Phil forbore to comment.  My brother, visiting us from the Island, piled on the cheddar and wrapped it in a napkin to keep the cheese from falling out.  "Too bad you didn't ask for custody of the mixer," he observed.

It's been quite a while now and we've eaten a lot of bad bread.  But I think I'm finally back on track.  Because today, while I was unpacking a laundry tub full of cook books and running shoes, a piece of paper fell out. And this afternoon, I'm girding up my loins with an apron to try again.

Let's see, now.  For every loaf of bread you want...

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