I went for a walk the other morning, two dogs in tow, through the damp and musty trees on a path up the canyon near my home. It had been raining through the night, and in that moment, a brief instant where I could hear the drip of the water through the trees, and could detect the smell of the wet earth and the loam of the fallen leaves, the spice of them, the smokiness, the intangible scent that I can always remember and can never describe, in that moment I was not in my forties and walking along a path in what is usually a semi-arid desert despite the amount of rain we receive on occasion, no, in that moment with those scents hanging in the air, and the feel of the damp on my skin, and the crisp air on my face, that almost-frost iciness that sinks deep into the bones, in that moment it felt like a morning from when I was eight or nine or ten, it felt like fall in the Pacific Northwest, it felt like the scent of moss and moist wood and pine needles crumbling away beneath my feet, and it was a peculiar way of feeling time shift away, of sensing the way a scent could deceive my senses, could rewind the way I feel the world beneath my fingertips, and suddenly I am young again and all awkward angles running through damp grass under tall redwoods, and I am banging through screen doors into a kitchen warm with the sound of a fire crackling in the wood stove, and in that moment I can practically hear the snap and creak of kindling in the hearth, can see the way moisture gathers on the glass in the corners of the windows as the room warms, can mark the mud tracked in from where I had knelt and walked and waded through streams and ponds and puddles searching for frogs and fairies, for I was a fanciful child—that I remember, and to tell the truth I still am, fanciful that is, spending my time weaving elaborate worlds of words—but this memory feels true, feels like I have been there, have walked through these rooms, have woken on this damp fall morning to this fire, to this moist and muddy adventure, to the warmth and smell of fresh bread baking, and although I cannot see anyone, this remembered moment feels full with the presence of my father who would have laid the fire, with my mother, who would have baked the bread and polished the floors and scolded my brother and my sister and I when we meandered through mud before wandering through the house, with my older brother and my younger sister and the baby I know was born when we lived in this place, although I saw her just the other day, grown up with five kids of her own, and in that forgotten sense of fullness I think about the things that have an impact on our lives, about the way the presence of others leaves indelible impressions that can be called back at a moment’s notice, with a sliver of scent as I am walking through the woods on an early fall morning after a night of rain in my mismatched socks that I borrowed from my kids to cushion the blister on my heel, on a morning when I am puffing my way up a path in the canyon with my creaky knees and two dogs with the kind of boundless and determined energy I have no hope to match.
I have been baking a lot recently, an activity which always brings with it memories of my mom. The kitchen in our house in Oregon was a large space with wide and welcoming windows on three sides, the better to salute the sunlight that fell between the frequent rainfalls. The room was always warm, with the sounds of familiar voices or the remnants of wood fires, with good company and sunny days and long hours of baking as my mom experimented with sourdoughs and egg washes and grinding her own wheat and tending to the rituals of the home and the hearth with first four children and then five underfoot.
I have been baking, and I have been experimenting with starters and rise times and I have been stretching and folding dough, a task I thought better suited to clothing than cooking, but what do I know about it really aside from an enthusiasm for experimentation and a willingness to try anything at least once? As I bake I have wondered about the ways we change the world around us, about the mark we make (and there is some metaphor here to be made about the way we score bread, but it feels a little too on the nose, now that I go to say it, a little too pat for the complicated experience of complex people that affects and impacts and influences the tense and tangled contradiction of memories and relationships and time).
Sourdough bread is all about balance. Water and flour, salt and yeast, time spent waiting and kneading and proofing and rising and baking and a type of generational knowledge that resists rigorous recipes. It is a bread that is shaped by tactile sensation more than any detailed description, a fact I find delightful, for my own written recipes are vague in the same way, full of references to ‘simmer until it smells right’ and ‘season until it looks good’ and ‘bake until it looks done and just springs back when touched with the tip of your finger,’ but the thing I love the most about sourdough bread is that it is made with the remnants of the past—that you take a starter that is months or years or decades old and you feed it from your own stories and your own stores and your own substance. And then you wait. And you hope.
You can never forget the hope.
The preparation of food, it seems to me, is a powerful and radical thing.
It is nourishment. It is love. It is a metaphor for the ways we reach out to one another in times of plenty, but also in times of want and need. It is a way of spending hours and effort to gather together ingredients, to carve out space in our lives for flour and water and the scent of rising bread—a scent that will carry through more than the few minutes it takes to enjoy before it fades from the room leaving nothing but a lingering quicksilver flavor in the kitchen of the house of our memories, memories that we might recall on another damp fall day a year from now, or two or ten, and it seems to me that I will never regret the time I spent telling the stories of what matters, hours I spent on the care and feeding of others, days and years I spent on expending time and energy and effort for what I feel called to do, in my kitchen or with my keyboard, but that I might, instead, think back on full fruitful days with glee and gladness and the recollection of a warm room on a cold day when the leaves are drifting gently down outside the frost-glazed glass of windows that no longer exist.
Lead image photo credit: Cristina Gottardi via Unsplash
sourdough photo credit: Jennifer Burk via Unsplash
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