by Connie Houston
Unedited and Unabridged
Our Daily Bread. When I grew up, one of eight siblings living in public housing in Lackawanna, NY. , we ate bread every day. My mother made cornbread for father. Not Jiffy. Not cloying. Mama’s cornbread was from scratch, savory, made with gritty, yellow cornmeal and cooked it in a cast iron skillet. Heated in the oven first with a knob of Crisco, the skillet sizzled as she would pour the batter into it. We children ate what my parents called “light bread.”
Being transplanted Southerners, our parents called loaf white bread by that name. They had not grown up eating much of it; they were raised during the Depression, but we kids ate it. It filled our stomachs. When dinners were just a skillet full of fried potatoes, we each ate a slice or two of light bread with them. When lunch had no lunchmeat, we ate sandwiches made of it and filled only with salad dressing. When there was no pancake mix, we fried it in the black skillet with oleo and poured cane syrup over it. Though cornbread and light bread may have sustained us, it was Mama’s homemade bread, fashioned into rolls that we all treasured. Mama would make her bread only on Sundays and on holidays. No Easter, no Christmas, and especially no Thanksgiving could be complete without it.
Making the bread took hours, and from the start of the process just after breakfast, my sisters and I would like to be with Mama in our yellow, brightly painted kitchen. It was roomy, but had no counter space, except for a small, red and worn square next to the sink for a dish rack. All counter work instead was done on a huge, oval wooden table with a lazy Susan in the middle. There my mother would add warm water to a cake of yeast she had placed into the smallest of her nesting bowls. She would add a pinch of sugar, and my sisters and I would watch the yeast slowly come to life. An ecru foam, it rose and filled the bowl. As the yeast proofed, Mama would scald milk in an old pot, add in Crisco, eggs and a whole cup of sugar because this was a sweet dough! Sometimes, this was when Mama would let us help. Into the largest of the nesting bowls, we were allowed to help measure the six cups of flour while she added in the teaspoon of salt. Then she would combine the yeast with the warm milk mixture, stir it into the flour, and cover it with a wet tea towel. While she did this, my sisters and I would take turns sipping whatever remained of the yeasty, sugary, fat laden milk in the pot.
Our favorite part, other than the smell of the baking bread, and taste of the lightly browned cooked rolls, toasted on top and tender and airy inside, was eating the raw dough before it was made into rolls. This happened around noon, and it drew all of us siblings to the table. By then, the smell of roasting turkey was permeating the air. The rice was cooked (we didn’t have mashed potatoes) so were the greens, cornbread dressing, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pies. The giblets for the gravy yet to be made, were a source of contention between the generations. They were also already cooked, waiting in a pot on the back of the stove. My parents, with Depression era minds, with memories of empty stomachs, believed in eating every part of an animal, tails and feet and neck bones, kidneys and intestines and livers, ears and hocks, brains and even fins. But my siblings and I eschewed eating these lowly turkey parts for Thanksgiving, but it was our father who prevailed in these matters. He liked giblets, and at dinner later we would have the task of picking them out of our gravy.
Mama would grease two long rectangular pans. She would then lightly flour the table and spill the dough out. It was a white, viscous blob, having more than doubled in size. She rolled it out with an aluminum cup, and then adroitly began cutting out rolls. Each one she picked up she dunked into a pot of melted oleo, folded it on half, and tucked it a pan for a second rising. As she sped through this progress, we kids all jockeyed for position, throwing hip checks and elbow swings. It did not matter, tall or short, old or young, it was understood that it was each kid for him or herself. As fast as Mama would cut, we would scoop up the scraps of the dough left behind from the cuttings and eat them. We smaller usually got fewer, but being little we could duck through, slip under the taller ones. Mama would good-naturedly pop us on the back of the hands with her wooden spoon because she wanted to reform the scraps and roll them into the next batch, and invariably warn us, “You gonna get a belly ache.” But we never ever did. Even with us eating the dough, there was always still plenty of rolls on the table for our early dinner
As poor as we were, as cold as it was outside that project apartment, as the wind swooped across Lake Erie, a short distance away, and mounds of snow gathered weeks before the start of winter, we were warm there in that kitchen. On this steamy island of light, we were the natives. Content with no thoughts of the invader that would eventually come to conquer us all. Time.
As each new Thanksgiving approaches, I think more of Mama. She carried the seeds of us, and now we carry the seed of her in our memories. I make Mama’s bread all year, but it is a must have on our Thanksgiving table.
Before her thoughts, her memories were taken one by one by Alzheimer’s, I had her recount the recipe, and I wrote it down. When I make the bread, like her, I don’t have to have a recipe beside me. It is in me. I’ve made it with my daughter at my side since she was three, and before Mama died when my daughter was four, I made it one last time for Mama on Thanksgiving of that year. At dinner she asked, “Who made the rolls?” When I told her that I did, she lifted her roll, took another bite and said, “My compliments to the chef.” She knew the taste though she could not remember how to make the bread anymore. And, as for the compliment, it belonged to her. To her skill. To her life. To her love. All which fit delectably in the palm of her hand.