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What the Big Deal Is About Bread

"What's this? Bread?" my then 12-year-old son asked, looking through my college snapshots. He held up a picture of two loaves. "What's the big deal about bread?"

Well, kiddo, the big deal about those loaves was that they were the first, baked when I was a junior in college, the Adam and Eve of the many loaves that have enriched my life since.

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Finally rebelling at the stuff that squashes down to a 10th of its size when the air is let out, I bought loaf pans, flour, and yeast, and found a "Basic Bread" recipe. That's what I wanted: the basic stuff, the staff of life, the kind of thing I watched my mother and grandmother bake.

It wasn't hard to do: mix, knead, let it rise; shape the loaves, let them rise; then bake. And there they were, ready for my camera, two golden loaves on a cooling rack in a patch of sunshine from the kitchen window.

I mentioned the bread in my next letter home. Mom wrote back, "I certainly am glad you started baking." She saw those loaves as a sign that I wasn't a total loss in the kitchen. I had cooked often enough to prove that I could, but when I moved off-campus she expected me to live on canned soup.

Once you've started, it's hard to stop. "I certainly am glad you started baking." She knew I'd be hooked. Mom has baked bread for almost 70 years, feeding large families. She complained about how much we ate, but she was the one who cut the loaf still hot from the oven and ate the first steamy slice dripping butter.

At one point she was confined to a wheelchair for a while, but once she was back on her feet she wrote in relief, "I baked bread the other day. I was so tired of that stuff from the store."

White bread was our family's mainstay, sometimes in the guise of clover-leaf rolls (three little lumps of dough tucked into a muffin tin) or crescent rolls - pale American cousins of croissants. Living now in an era of cross-cultural cuisine, I pursue breads I never heard of as a child. I've bought entire cookbooks on the promise of real bagels, kaiser rolls, pumpernickel, pita, chapatis, or bialys. With the help of Julia Child, I've made nearly real French bread: the classic baguette, brioche, pain de mie.

I didn't take a picture of my first try at baguettes; I was just glad to get through it. It was early in our marriage, when my husband, salivating at the memory of his trip to Europe, believed I could pull off any feat of baking. After 10 hours of slow rising and careful "kneading" of the gooey dough with a pastry scraper, I slid the loaves into the hot oven, threw in a sprinkle of water for steam, closed the door, and watched in horror as the power went out.

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My only hope was that the oven had enough heat in it to bake the bread if I left it in longer, or that power would be restored really soon. Outages that weren't storm-related usually lasted about an hour. The bread was supposed to bake 25 minutes.

I sat on the floor in front of the oven in the growing dark, willing the bread to bake, willing the electricity to flow through the wires. I checked the clock so often that the hands seemed frozen - then I remembered it too was electric. I was afraid to peek in the oven and afraid not to.

"Help me, please," I pleaded to anyone listening. "I don't know what to do." Suddenly, the kitchen lit up, the refrigerator hummed, and the oven clicked back on. Only 10 minutes. The bread was wonderful. So has been the marriage.

FOR years, I've been the one who brings a pile of pita, rolls, English muffins, or bagels for the bake sale or potluck dinner, the one who makes her own whole-wheat biscuit mix and buys flour 25 pounds at a shot. You know me, the one who makes you feel guilty or makes you feel liberated. Recently, my younger brother gave me a bread machine for Christmas. "I thought you might like a break sometimes," he said.

My son was hooked early. Other bread pictures show him as a four-year-old rolling out pita, as a six-year-old with a tiny lumpy loaf he made all by himself. When he was 9, he got out my Basic Bread recipe and took over, turning out golden loaves to rival mine.

So what was the big deal about the bread in the picture, he wondered. He could do that.

So he could, and does. When he left home, I gave him a set of loaf pans. He has since added more, of different sizes. He sometimes has all-day breadmaking marathons to stock his freezer. The baking goes on for another generation. That's really what the big deal was about.

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