The fall and rise of good bread:
As a very young child I was baptized into the University Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and taught to believe that bread was the body sacrificed for me. All I knew was that it tasted greatyeasty and a little sweet. I never knew the exact provenance of this big, fragrant loaf, but imagined it was homemade every week by some elder’s diligent wife. I always tried to stand in the communion circle to my father’s left so I’d be sure to get the indelicate chunk his wide basketball-palming hand would invariably tear off for me.
After services came the Krispy Kreme platter in the fellowship hall. Somehow it seemed related to the communion loaf, a glazed, sticky bonus for making it through the sermon awake. This sweet bread was supremely communal, judging by the smiles on parishioners’ faces. (I’ve since run into many people, non-North Carolinians, who grew up thinking Krispy Kreme first started in their town, that it was their uniquely local habit to pick up a dozen on the way to church.)
When, at 7, I was moved by divorce and circumstance to the cathedral-style, high-society Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans, I felt deflated. Wafers? This is what was sacrificed for me? I left church on Sundays with a dry mouth and a grumbling belly. Social hour offered crackers and cheese, but a cracker did not seem a suitable bonus for sitting through an entire First Rite service. I missed Krispy Kreme, and to be fair, Alabama, too.
Soon Louisiana revealed its worth. This was La Nouvelle Orleans, not the Bible Belt: I’d been looking in the wrong place for sustenance. On warm Sunday afternoons, my mother’s boyfriend drove us past the tall Garden District churches on to the French Quarter, to Café du Monde for powdered beignets. It seemed so extravagant. Though the beignet could not cure my homesickness, it was a sweet distraction.
Bread often seems a prosaic addition to a meal, easily taken for granted. Toast on the side, for example, or the unwelcome hot dog bun that lasts longer than its meat. (“Oh! I forgot the bread!” my mother-in-law always shouts as we’re clearing plates. Did anyone miss it?)
But when I think back on my life, it’s marked by remembrances of meals eaten together, bread broken together. Dashing out of school at lunchtime, a car-full of us, to grab shrimp po-boys on crusty French bread, and unwrapping them on sunny benches by the Mississippi. Or a teenage trip to Europe eating nothing but chocolate croissants. This summer I took my son to Strasbourg, and the first thing we did upon setting foot in the town square was go to the patissier and order deux pain du chocolats. By the look on his chocolate-smeared face, he too will remember it in his 30s.
This past December, I met my aunt and her family for dinner in North Raleigh. Afterward, as I walked to my car, she called out, “Janey, you forgot your Christmas present!” and thrust in my hands something I hadn’t seen in 15 years: an aluminum pan of cinnamon buns. For the first two decades of my life, most Christmas mornings had been spent in the kitchen of my grandparents’ tidy white clapboard house in Yadkin County (“in town” Grandma would be sure to add), eating her homemade cinnamon buns. I’d sneak a pat of butter on mine, and she’d catch me mid-bite with the same admonition, “You’re gilding the lily!” I’m sure she really meant “You’ll end up with hips the size of a milk cow,” but no matter; the taste of salty butter dripping down a nutty glazed bun was Christmas to me, and I was going to sit and have my own moment of devotion whether she approved or not.
With her heavy-framed glasses and pursed mouth, Grandma was a champion disapprover, which didn’t bother me for a minute. I gave my son her family name in hopes that he’d karmically inherit some of her strength and stubbornness. She was also the most honest hugger, the liveliest storyteller, and the best cooking instructor of anyone I’d known. Her kitchen was a place of refuge, both from my wild running boy cousins and from whatever preteen angst I was suffering that month, and it was also a place of order, where she could instantly visualize every item and its precise location in her deep freezer. She died when I was 20, over the course of six wrenching months, younger than she should have. It is her prolonged death, and the family disputes that arose during her care, that I tend to think of when her memory comes up.
The Monday morning after dinner with my aunt, I woke early and heated the pan of buns. She’d decorated them exactly like Grandma had, with white icing and silly green and red candied fruit. The pan glistened in the oven, fats relaxing the spools of bread as if they’d just exhaled. Without being too Proustian, when I took the first bite, I remembered instantly the tiny kitchen in Yadkinville and the feeling of safety it gave me in the time I needed it most. Those first 19 years rushed back, erasing the bitter taste of the 20th.
That week, I phoned my aunt and asked her for the cinnamon-bun recipe. “There isn’t one,” she said. “But come over and we’ll make them together.” So I did, and watched her, and wrote out a copy as she worked, kneading the dough, tossing on the pecans, sprinkling the cinnamon, laying out the raisins, her hands working like Grandma’s did, shaping the buns and setting them in the warm oven to rise.
I came home with three pans full and a two-card recipe, the first ever written. Though my devout Protestant grandmother would disapprove of the sacrilege, I will admit it: I felt more communion that morning at my aunt’s kitchen counter than I ever have in any pew. That silly Christmas pastry had become, for me, the bread of life.