We attended my son’s first Communion retreat today. As he is the last of my 3 children, I had some expectation of what would go on. We would be working on his banner, with some representation of wine and bread and his name in felt, with glue and scissors involved. For a non-crafty person with an aversion to asymmetry and perhaps, just a slight control issue, this would represent a challenge in and of itself. There would be talk of what to expect when his First Communion day arrives, prayers, and the learning of a song and it’s requisite hand motions.
But this retreat began differently. Jude, our director of religious education, called all of us into the kitchen of our church. Lined with institutional grade stainless steel shelving, and signs reminding us of regulations regarding sanitation, it was an unlikely place to begin a Communion retreat with fidgety 8 year-olds. Jude and I connected when I learned he is also a Michigan native, and he began today by talking about baking bread with his mother, a farmer’s wife.
As a self-professed nerd, I find baking bread to be a most satisfying mix of science and art. Measurements are precise. Ingredients are added in ways meant to maximize proteins and yeast avoiding certain temperatures, with adjustments for altitude or bread machines. It is wholly unlike the way I learned to cook under my mother’s tutelage.
My mother is a woman blessed with a gift for cooking, and she taught me how to cook by smell. Yes, smell, not taste. Married to a typical Korean man who loves his kimchi, gochujang, and gochugaru, her stomach is sensitive to spicy food, and so she compensated. Early in their marriage, my father learned that he could take her to restaurants, and she could come home and replicate them. There is no precision to her measurements. How do you measure “It should smell like this”? Spices are added by pinches or handfuls, the appropriate amount of water for rice measured by the crook of an index finger. Her meals always have an element of surprise and experimentation, and yet they are always delicious when my mother cooks them. I have attempted to quantify recipes, scribbling madly as she tosses in a little of this, and just a bit of that. Though I was a good student at her elbow and have no trouble feeding my family, somehow my dishes never taste exactly like hers.
Ah, but bread, bread I can make. I turn to Pinterest, and my bread machine hums and shakes, and voila! A warm loaf of soft, moist bread emerges. It is magic and science all rolled into one, and fulfills a mysterious deep-seated need in me to feed the people I love. It connects me to a long line of people who felt this same need. It should not be a surprise then that the bible is filled with references to bread. Everyone knows the story of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. As a Catholic, bread has always symbolized Christ.
But I have never heard baking bread described like this. Jude’s mother described baking bread like life. We have to begin with a bowl. This bowl will contain everything, keep everything in one place where you need it. This bowl is home. It is no wonder that Jude and his 7 siblings ask his mother to bake bread with them when they come home to visit. Flour is messy, like life. She always added an egg to the recipe, whether it called for it or not, and the egg was the Trinity, and necessary. Like the dough, his mother taught him, we are all kneaded and shaped by someone’s hands–parents, siblings, teachers and friends. When the bread had risen, it was necessary to punch it down, “and all of us will be punched down, or hurt some day by someone,” he said. And I felt the truth of that, as did all the entranced children in that kitchen. But that dough, it rises again, like we all must. And after the final shaping, we come through the intense firing of heat, and then the bread can be broken and shared with others.
And so, it comes back to what we all know to be true. We are here to nourish one another. It is not magic or science or art. It is simple truth, and I learned it again today, from the son of a farmer’s wife.
I am grateful today for all those who nourish us, body and soul, with friendship, good food, and good stories.
*Jude has promised me the recipe for his mother’s challah bread, and I will post the link to it once I receive it. It goes without saying there was not a bit of it left at the end of the retreat, despite the donuts, coffee cake and fruit we had all already eaten just before this.