I baked bread yesterday. Not in the bread machine or a quick bread from a mix. I made Scots baps... from scratch. (And, yes, I am disproportionately proud of myself for this fact.) I haven't attempted anything quite this ambitious in the kitchen in a while. I usually cook from books that involve short cuts and quick fixes. I heat up a frozen entree prepared by Stouffer more often than I would like to admit. I have an excuse; I have preschoolers. Still, every time I serve up Shake-N-Bake chicken with a side of Rice-A-Roni, I feel a twinge of guilt. Because I know that even though my days get busy, I really can cook. I'm good at it. No matter what the excuse, if something comes out of the freezer or a cardboard box, I'm being a little lazy.
I approached this weekend with an eye toward rediscovering my inner Julia Child. I cracked open my nicer, fancier cookbooks and picked out recipes that I wish someone would cook for me. I almost skipped over the book entitled The Art of Bread, thinking that would be biting off way more than I could chew. But you have to know something about me: I don't just love bread, I luuuurrrrrrvvvvve bread. Not the pre-sliced stuff from the supermarket. Rather the kind displayed in row after delicious row at Central Market or local bakeries. I love to thump the bottom of a gorgeous artisanal loaf and hear the glorious, hollow echo. I love the crispy crunch noise when you rip into a fresh baguette. Good bread is something of an obsession.
So I found a recipe that not only seemed simple, as far as bread goes, but also brought to the surface lovely memories of my childhood years in Scotland. Baps, these flour-dusted little ovals rolls, that were often served when we dined at people's homes or that my mother would bring home fresh from Robertson's bakery on High Street. I said a little prayer that my rusty culinary skills would not fail me and I got to baking.
They were wonderful. Just as I remembered them. It was awesome to be able to share them, both with my nuclear family, who had never had them before, and my family of origin with whom I also share those fond memories. But the process was wonderful too. The kneading, the shaping, the wonderful yeasty smell as they rose and baked. There is just something magical about bread.
Eddie's first New Year's Eve was celebrated in the NICU of Brackenridge Hospital, Austin, Tx. It was a big day for me. I love New Year's anyway with its promise of fresh beginnings and new leaves. And I was ending the most dramatic year of my life: the year I got married, had my first baby, and came to know and trust God in a way I had never imagined possible. It was also the first year Austin would be having a First Night celebration. It was to be a family friendly parade, an alternative to the party scene at galas or bars. It was modeled after a similar celebration in Boston and was a celebration of life, the city, and the arts.
Phillip and I decided to go. Eddie had his primary nurse assigned to him that evening, an angel named Francesca, who we loved and trusted. We knew this trust was well placed when she arrived for duty with a miniature top hat and party blower for our little Ed. We spent very little time away from him in those days, the odd dinner out here and there, but mostly our time together was either in the NICU or sleeping at the Ronald McDonald House. So our decision to head down to Congress Street early that evening before returning to NICU for the official ringing in of the New Year was a big deal for us.
The weather was beautiful. Short sleeve and jeans weather but with a brisk wind that kept whipping down the wide avenue, bringing with it a cloud of black birds that perched in the trees only to be swept up in the next great gale. I was exhilarated even before the festivities began, my soul dancing in the wind with those little birds, thrilling in the majesty of God.
The young woman standing next to me felt differently. Every time the birds would take flight, weaving and creating patterns with their flock, she would cringe and say things like, "Eww! Flying rats!" (I feel this way about bats, as you may know, so, really, I'm not judging... much.) But I didn't let her lack of enthusiasm dampen mine. The parade began and my husband and I rejoiced, enjoying the colorful performers and floats.
One group was carrying a sign ahead of them that said simply, "Bread." They were dressed in neutral colors but looked rather medieval and festive all the same. They were handing out big, fat loaves of artisanal bread to those of us in the crowd. As I held my hands up hoping to gain a loaf, the bird-hating lady next to me did as well. She went as far to say: "Give me some!" One of the ladies from the parade walked over and placed a generous loaf of sourdough in my outstretched hands. I smiled and thanked her and then, Christian that I am, offered to split it with the woman beside me. She recoiled as if I had just offered her a pet black bird. "Oh, no," she exclaimed, aghast. "I don't eat it."
This experience sticks with me for a number of reasons. As a whole, the First Night parade stands in my memory as a time when I was able to celebrate with an open heart. I was able to embrace life at a time when mine was very hard, to throw my arms open wide to a world that God created and love it with every fiber of my being. To laugh, to soar, to dance. When the parade was over, we walked down Congress, enjoying our fill of delicious sourdough before passing half of our loaf along to a man who most likely had missed a few meals. He smiled and took it with as much joy as we felt in offering it. Then we went back to our first born son, counted down the minutes to a new year with him and with a staff who loved him like one of their own, and raised a glass of sparkling juice in his honor. It was a wonderful, beautiful night.
I am grateful that God gave me a moment of contrast in the midst of it all. I think it was no mistake that I stood next to this young woman, who could not have been older than thirty, attractive, dressed fashionably with great hair and makeup. I don't know what her life looked like on the inside, but she certainly wasn't impoverished and I feel rather safe in assuming that she did not have a terminally ill child in the hospital a few miles away. But still she had so little gratitude. She was so imprisoned by her life that she could not see majesty in nature, that she would ask for a loaf of bread but recoil at the idea of eating it. I pray for her every time I think of her.
Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." I know Him and He is not the 89 cent, pre-sliced sandwich variety. He is sustenance, but beyond that He is rich, dense, organic, and beautiful. He is sweetened with honey. He can be experienced with every sense. Psalm 34:8 says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good." And He is. All the time. He is the Bread of Life. And I feel that there are far too many people out there like the bird hating, bread eschewing woman, who recoil from experiencing Him, fearful of what would happen or who they would be if they let go of all of the rules and embraced a living God. Who are standing with their arms out and hands open, needing to be loved, needing to have peace, wanting to be happy, but then rejecting the free gift that God is offering them. Not realizing that if they would only taste and see, they would know a freedom and a joy that is unimaginable and inarticulable.
He is with us. He was with me yesterday, smiling I think, while I was kneading the dough for my baps, while I was allowing the first taste to fill me with precious, comforting memories of days gone by. He was with me, laughing, on that First Night when I told my worldly circumstance to go to hell and worshipped God with complete and utter abandon. He is the Bread of Life and there is just something magical about bread.