The Saratoga Sun -

By Joe Elder 

Arm wrestling with grandma


I was 16 years old before I could beat my grandmother in an arm wrestling match.

We were at her kitchen counter, seated on opposite stools. It wasn’t a quick match, and afterwards I was confused. I expected to have to go gentle on her knuckles when I pinned her arm down. Instead, after two minutes of struggle, I just got them to touch the counter and claimed victory.

It was a hollow victory. It was my grandmother, after all.

In my defense, my grandmother hefted a lot of cast iron pans and kneaded a lot of bread dough over the years. She had a lot of strengths, wrists included.

My grandmother cooked in volume. The social weight of all of our family gatherings, she anchored our games, competitions and conversation with humor, wisdom and lots of food.

She didn’t wait for holidays to call up a family gathering. She baked bread twice a month and every second Friday, family, friends and people in town for the weekend would stop by around noon and eat.

She made a big pillow of dough and heated up Crisco in a huge cast iron frying pan in which she fried the dough. We all slathered the fried bread with butter, honey-butter, plain honey, jelly and baked beans.

Always competitive, my cousins and I competed for the fullest bellies and suffered later when we took the competition outside with self-refereed games of kick-the-can or football.

With the left over dough, she baked loaves of bread and as the afternoon streamed out of the sky, we trickled back in the house with rapidly returning appetites.

We clamored for a slice of one of the six or seven loaves of bread cooling on the counter.

As the years went by and my cousins and I started working, went to college and left town, we could always count on a fried bread day when we returned to visit.

My grandmother died in 2003 and since then our extended family gatherings have dwindled to once a summer and the bread baking is almost non-existent. My aunt and my sister have each had successful attempts. Making the bread is one thing, making it equal the taste of my grandmother’s is quite another.

About a month ago, I read an article that said the smell of baking bread makes people happy. It reminded me of all those many afternoons at my grandmother’s house.

I’m not sure if it was the smell of the bread that made us happy or if we just associated the smell of bread with laughter and friendly competition.

After reading the article, I decided to give bread baking a go and see if I could replicate that smell of happiness.

I always took my grandmother for granted and filled my stomach without ever realizing how much effort (and arm strength) it took to prepare all of that food.

Of course, it was a labor of love for her, much as planting, watering and weeding a garden can be more rewarding and creative than tossing a plastic bag full of machine-washed spinach in your shopping cart.

It doesn’t take much skill to buy a loaf of bread. You need about 10 minutes and $4 or so.

It takes hours more to bake it yourself and enough skill to avoid scalding the yeast and patience to knead the dough into the right consistency.

The art of making bread is old and has, at times turned the course of history. Egyptians were baking bread 5,000 years ago and the French Revolution started, in part, because of a bread shortage.

Bread baking may be the second oldest profession, but each baker must find his or her own kinship within that ancestry. My grandmother perfected her methods over a 50-year period.

I’ve only been into it for about three weeks, but already my process is evolving from the technical to the intuitive.

There’s less flour floating in the kitchen air now and instead of using a thermometer to measure the temperature of the liquid with the yeast, I put my finger in it and try to equate the temperature with the hot pool (which is just about right for activating yeast, it turns out).

My relationship with bread baking will never be as intimate and evolved as my grandmother’s, but it does give me a window into her experience and an understanding that the best part of bread is the baking of it.

And in that small way, her experience continues.


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