The Parents Make Bread
My parents made bread from scratch. It was one of the holiday rituals, for both Christmas and Easter. Though not done consciously, they have passed the tradition to me. I love making bread. I’ve been making it since college days where I would give fresh, hot loaves away to friends. I remember one of the financially impoverished moments during college found me selling hot, buttered slices of freshly made bread to the students for one dollar a slice. Any recipe secrets? Well, not secrets since I’ll tell you, let’s just say that it’s what I do: Make a sponge as directed in ‘The Tassajara Bread Book’, before the loaves go into the oven and if I want a glaze I’ll brush the tops with a mixture of beaten egg and a little water and make a shallow slit in the top, use a baking stone rather than a bread pan if you’re not fussy about the shape of the loaf, when the breads go in the oven throw some ice cubes on the oven floor to create steam. For me this all works.
Every aspect of bread making and fresh bread screams sensuality. If the sex police ever made a loaf of bread they would ban anyone from making bread by hand ever again. The wonderful way that the gooey sponge transmutes to a wonderful shining silk as more flour is incorporated, this silken feeling of dough beneath your massaging hands, the elasticity of the dough, the push and pull of your hands and arms and upper body as you knead this dough, the warmth of the oven, the resting between risings, the fact that this can’t be rushed if you want it done well; wait for it, wait for it. The aromas of the yeasty bread and finally the finished bread. This finished bread; aromatic like nothing else, hot, the crust hiding the chewy interior. You and your lover should slather butter on a slice from a loaf just taken from the oven, share bites, gently, slowly, kiss that drop of butter that’s at the corner of your partner’s mouth and see where this all goes. Primal babe, very primal. On this earth it’s as good as it gets.
As I grow older some of the childhood memories that I have of Mom, Dad and Food are beginning to take on a strange and frightening aspect. My childhood eyes would widen in horror if I knew then what I think that I know now about certain ‘rituals’ that Mom and Dad kept. It starts, as all good horror stories do, so innocently.
The ritual began on Holiday eve. Oddly, I remember this being coupled with my Mom scrubbing the kitchen floor clean. All of this done the night before family was coming to visit. In making the bread Mom’s responsibility was to gather all the ingredients and make sure that they were added in the correct order. Dad’s responsibility was to knead the dough. OK, this doesn’t sound strange or frightening up to this point, but I have acquired a credible knowledge of bread making and looking back I perceive that the weirdness of their ritual begins with their approach to kneading the dough. It was Dad’s job to knead the bread because, according to my parents, this took several hours, if not all night, and required the body strength of Hercules! I’m not Hercules and I make damn good bread. Bonnie’s not Hercules and she makes damn good bread too. My Dad damn well wasn’t Hercules. What’s wrong with this picture? You do not knead it for several hours at a time – yet my folks said that you did. Several kneadings sure, but hours and hours? No way.
Mom and Dad approached the bread making evening with something of a grim attitude and for some reason they started later in the evening and continued into the wee hours of the morning. I remember that as child, an innocent, I would eventually drift to sleep to the grunts and groans of my Dads’ endeavors with the bread, kneading the dough. HEY, WAIT A MINUTE HERE! Maybe that “hours of kneading” line was bullshit, a red herring, a ruse. Maybe my Mom and Dad were actually………… Oh!, Oh! Please God tell me that my imaginings are not true. Say that the ‘ritual’ of cleaning the floors and making bread was exactly that, nothing more, nothing less. The late hour, the children asleep in their beds, the freshly cleaned kitchen floor, my Mom so breathily silent, my Dad grunting and groaning for what seemed to be hours as he kneaded the dough. I beseech you to assure me that as a young child I did not drift off to sounds of my Dad and my Mom – “making bread”.
A Classic Summer Salad – Jersey Tomatoes, Basil and Shavings of Parmesan Reggiano. Dressed with Olive Oil, Red Wine Vinegar, Salt and Black Pepper
Polio, Strawberry Shortcake And Uneaten Green Peas
In truth, the Grunwald family dinners were usually pretty uneventful. Watery tomato sauce on the walls was not an everyday occurrence. But, there is that one dinner in particular that I will never forget. One of my brothers contracted Polio in the early 1950’s. Very, very scary stuff back then. We wondered if he was going to die or be left paralyzed. Scary enough that the kids in the neighborhood kept their distance from me that summer. Nobody was sure how you caught the disease. The local newspaper printed a report of my brother’s illness without giving our family name. I wasn’t allowed to see him in the hospital; he was in an isolation ward. Thankfully, it did not leave my brother with any permanent damage, but I will always remember those frightening days, talk of the possibility of my brother being in an iron lung, crying parents, time in the hospital and a lot of painful rehab for him later. All very tough on a kid that was 4 or 5 years old.
School had finished and summer vacation had begun. He didn’t feel well during that particular early summer day, pretty lethargic and feverish, but in the late afternoon it took only an hour or two to go from not feeling well to the panicked frightening call to the doctor, the doctor coming to the house and the trip to the hospital. I remember that, suddenly, we all realized that he was very ill just as we were about to eat desert after dinner, all of us sitting around the small kitchen table, humid and still light outside. What I consider very weird is that I will always remember what we were having, what we were supposed to have, for dessert – strawberry shortcake. Didn’t Proust have something to say along these lines? Do I have any neuroses about cooking, serving or eating strawberry shortcake these days? – No. But, I will always remember. I find it perfectly understandable, but strange none the less, how certain aspects of a moment will stick in your head and forever bring you back to that incident. Again; the context of the moment. Actions and components forever preserved in a singular memory simply because they were all present when that moment occurred in time – Polio and Strawberry Shortcake.
On a lighter note, in regards to the shortcake, I alternate between the ‘biscuit’ and the ‘sponge cake’ styles for the recipe and I always add a little Cointreau or Triple Sec (depending on what I can afford) and a bit of sugar to the strawberries as they are macerating. Never, never, never, use anything but real whipped cream. You will never get into heaven if you use any ‘non-dairy products’. Those fake whipped cream people belong right up there with the Spam people. It just ain’t that hard to make whip cream! Simply, whip the cream! Whip It, Whip It Good! Of course I add a little sugar and a dash of vanilla. There is an exception to the non-dairy rule – ‘Reddi Whip’ sprayed directly from the can to your mouth. Manners dictate that you cannot let the spout come in contact with your mouth. There are several other things that one can use ‘Reddi Whip’ for – I’ll just leave it at that.
In addition to watery tomato sauce and polio at our dinner table we had fun too. At one dinner the middle brother decided that he would refuse to eat his peas. From what friends with children have told me I am given to understand that the whole ‘children/refusal to eat thing’ is not uncommon. However, when you’re a kid, the scene unfolding before you seems scary, fraught with peril and certainly not everyday.
It began so easily. My brother toying with the peas, but not actually eating any and the rest of us have finished dinner. Dad: “you’re not leaving this table until you eat all of your peas!” Brother: “I’m not eating them!” And so battle was joined. The four of us, the youngest brother not having made his appearance yet, sat at that table, not eating, not moving, waiting for the next salvo to be unleashed. Waiting to see what strategies were employed and who would emerge triumphant – My brother or Dad. What seemed like hours passed. At this point I wouldn’t have touched, let alone eaten, these peas if they were the last food on earth. They were canned peas and in the passing hours they had taken on a gray color and begun to shrivel, looking like a virus molecule viewed through an electron microscope at a magnification of 5000x. After several go rounds of eat or else/I’m not eating my Dad played what he thought to be the winning hand – “If you don’t eat those peas RIGHT NOW you’re going to the orphanage for the rest of your life”. Holy Shit! He had never used this threat before! The usual threat was along the lines of, “I’m going to get my belt and spank you until you can’t sit down”. And my brother STILL refused to eat the peas. At this point, I suspect that it was a matter of pride for both parties. My butt is numb from sitting so long and I’m probably missing ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’, but I wouldn’t dare leave.
This being the same brother who, a year or two later, when what was left of my youngest brother’s umbilical cord dried up, fell to the floor, and for some absolutely unfathomable reason was put on the kitchen counter by our mother – ATE IT – mistaking it for what he said was a raisin.
This umbilical raisin eating brother was unmoved by the threat of merely a possible call to the orphanage. Then, Dad doubled or nothing. He went to the phone, dialed and said into the handset, “I have a boy here that I want you to come and pick up and put into your orphanage for the rest of his life”. My brother sat in his chair stone faced. I on the other hand was freaking out. Jesus, they’re going to take my brother away; I don’t like him, but I sure as shit don’t want him in an orphanage for the rest of his life! I screamed, “PLEASE, PLEASE, EAT THE PEAS – I’LL GIVE YOU MY BICYCLE!!!!” What the hell had I just said – my bicycle!!!!??? He still wouldn’t eat the peas!!!! “I’LL GIVE YOU MY NEW BASEBALL GLOVE TOO!!!!” I said that!!!???? Why the hell were these pleas coming from my mouth? Why did I care? If they took him away I’d get our bedroom to myself.
It was over more quickly than it started when my mother said, “Oh Chester!!! If he doesn’t want to eat his peas, then he doesn’t have to”.
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em, and my brother knew.
One of Mom’s Recipes
This is my Mom’s recipe for Jewish Coffee Cake. I believe that the name derives from the fact that the recipe incorporates sour cream. I mean, if it has sour cream in it, it has to be Jewish – right? There’s a weird ethnic thing that, growing up in a family where my grandparents weren’t born in this country, I came to realize pretty early on. It’s the fact that, out of ignorance, people will generalize and fabricate truths about other ethnic groups. No surprise there right? Since time began it’s been the case. It even manifests itself in food. Hence, if the recipe’s got sour cream it must be Jewish. Hell, everybody generalizes, regardless of ethnicity, usually not for the best. So you get older and come to know the world beyond yours and you simply deal with this and you understand that sometimes the generalization is not intended to harm. So, let’s not get too PC – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, nothing more, nothing less.
This dessert, Jewish Coffee Cake, is one the iconic ‘Ands’ of ‘Coffee And’. What, you’ve never heard that phrase? I’ve never heard that phrase used anywhere in the United States except in the central Connecticut of my boyhood. I have always asked people that I meet, from across the country, if they ever heard the phrase, ‘Coffee And’.
To date, no one has so I have to presume that it’s a central Connecticut, 1950’s, Polish, thing. How’s that for a generalization? It is defined as joining with friends to have coffee and a dessert. Mom would say to us, “After church we’re going to Uncle Dick and Aunt Terri’s to have Coffee And”. The ‘Coffee’ was immutable. No, tea, no juices, no alcohol. Simply coffee with cream and sugar if you liked. The ‘And’ was never defined, elaborated on, specified or divulged to the guests prior to its being served. It could be anything from doughnuts to cookies to Jewish Coffee Cake. On some occasions, if the time of the gathering was close to meal time or if the ‘Coffee And’ host wanted to show off, the ‘And’ became a full blown meal with ham, kielbasa, beets, bread, everything. However, the etiquette of ‘Coffee And’ was usually maintained. Outrageous ‘Ands’, while not to be avoided, were not considered true ‘Coffee And’.
My mother has a singular trait that is marveled at by all family members at the ‘Coffee And’s’. She can make a single cup of coffee last forever. Lots of cream and sugar it will take her three to four hours to finish that cup of coffee – if she finishes it at all. Does she want some warm coffee added, maybe just a little. Does she want a fresh cup, no. Also, she never takes notice of whether or not the cup is level, whether or not the coffee was in danger of spilling over the rim. The entire family will, out of the corner of their eyes, watch the angle of the cup. The understated inhalation of the room full of people signaled the closing proximity of the remaining coffee in the cup to the rim. My mother’s hand will move the slightest bit, drawing the coffee edge a miniscule dimension back from a disastrous spill and the entire room of people will exhale. This is repeated many times. The anticipation of disaster finally wearing her audience out. She is a master entertainer. For Mom the ‘And’s’ were a matter altogether different from the coffee – keep ’em coming. My mother survives, basically, on a diet of sweets and that single cup of coffee.
Mom was wonderful enough to give me the old aluminum tube pan that she baked her Jewish Coffee Cake in. The pan, and the recipe are treasured and I continue to use them – it’s a very good recipe – the perfect ‘And’.
NEXT WEEK: ‘EATING’ THE LOBSTER AND THE FRONTIERSMAN AND PATRICIA MURPHY’S