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Hands in the Dough

by Julia Sneden

One of the perks of writing this column is receiving mail from some really interesting readers. Perhaps the most unusual letter that arrived during the past year was from a woman in Scotland. Her name is Pat, and she is a member of the Scottish Women's Rural Institute, an organization that reaches far beyond Scotland. The members of SWRI seem to be lively women who share an interest in the country and in country living. The group has a web page and a magazine called "Scottish Home & Country." It even has its own tartan.

I don't think we have an analogous group in America. Pat is definitely a senior, but the group doesn't seem to be senior-specific. Pat's chapter recently participated in a competition amongst chapters from all over Scotland. The competition consisted of presentations, both group and individual, on the theme of "Senior Moments." In her search for materials, Pat came across Senior Women Web. My fellow SWW columnist Rose Mula and I were pleased that Pat's group selected readings from our columns. They didn't win their competition, but apparently they garnered good reviews.

The other day, I received a fat packet from Pat. It contained their script, a photo of the four women on their team, a photo of the village hall where their local chapter meets, and a handsome Scottish Highlands calendar, along with a lovely letter. She is a busy lady, involved with golf and travel (she has a daughter in Houston) and preparations for her chapter's "Bulbs and Baking" show.

I am sure that there are lots of organizations in America that connect women who have similar interests, but I can't think of one that has the scope of SWRI: from dramatic competitions to "bulbs and baking" - that's quite a leap!

I think I'd love the baking part. I come from a long line of home bakers. My grandfather was famous for his biscuits; my mother baked wonderful breads. My great aunt Mary's handwritten cookbook contains recipes, many from my great grandmother, for everything from Boston Brown Bread to steamed pudding to graham flour bread.

I remember that when I was small, my mother baked bread every week despite a killer schedule as a graduate student and teacher, never mind running a household that included two children, two grandmothers and a great aunt. I don't know how she found the time. She did have what was the 1930's most modern bread-making appliance, a large, galvanized tin tub with a handle that protruded from the lid to turn the large, reverse-S dough hook inside. In theory she could mix the dough, let it rise, and stir it down to let it rise again without having to handle it. In practice, she would always knead by hand because she said she needed to "feel the dough."

I loved the whole process. I used to snitch bits of the raw dough despite many worried looks from one of my grandmothers who was sure it would "rise in her stomach" (Mother just smiled and looked the other way as I continued to snitch). I also loved the smell of baking bread (who doesn't?) and the sound the hot loaves made when you "thumped" them to see if they were done. As soon as I was old enough to give the crust a good thump, I became the official done-ness checker, or at least I thought I was. It didn't occur to me until years later that Mother was always right there as I thumped, and sometimes said gently: "ummmDon't you think that one needs a little more time?"

My love of the baking process didn't necessarily include a love of the bread itself, at least not unless it was still warm from the oven. When my mother sent me off to school with sandwiches made from thick slices of cold, day-old bread, I would immediately look for someone who wanted to trade. Fortunately, I could always find someone with that wonderful, cake-y, tasteless white bread who hankered for real flavor. Just as the other child savored my mother's homemade bread, I loved the blandness of the "store-boughten."

After I grew up and had my own kitchen, I started looking for bread recipes. There was no point in asking my mother for one, because she was an intuitive cook who never used a recipe for anything. She'd throw some more flour into the batter left over from breakfast waffles or pancakes, add a little yeast and this and that, and presto! Bread dough would appear. Alas, that was a skill I didn't inherit.

But I did have the love of baking. I soon discovered that bread in the oven counts as food for the soul as well as the body. There are olfactory rewards that reach far beyond mere pleasure. A good sniff of what's cooking cures almost any ill.

The house can be a mess, the baby squalling, and dinner far from ready, but my family doesn't notice any of those things if the house smells of baking bread. It's a secret I have recommended to many a young bride.

For the baker, however, the efficacious effect of making bread begins even before it hits the oven. There is the amazing moment that comes while kneading the dough, when it is transformed from a sticky mass clinging unpleasantly between your fingers to a smooth, satiny, elastic, non-clingy entity. It feels responsive, and almost like a living thing (and given the yeast in it, I suppose it could be so categorized).

The soothing, repetitious motions of the kneading itself afford the baker a few moments of calm, a time to reflect or perhaps simply to let unregimented thoughts float across the consciousness. I find myself wondering if masseurs experience the same kind of relaxing, almost hypnotic sensation as they knead our knotted muscles (God knows the massagee does!).

At times, kneading dough brings to mind a happy, purring cat that kneads its paws as it lies in your lap. It's odd to think that we share this particular kind of sensory pleasure with felines. (I may not be able to purr, but I understand the urge).

Many of my friends are happy users of bread machines, and I am sure that the convenience of a machine is laudable. But I will remain a happy dinosaur, hands in the dough and a dreamy look in my eyes. I need to knead.

 

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